Living for the City: Robert Clifton Weaver's Liberalism | The Nation


Living for the City: Robert Clifton Weaver's Liberalism

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Schomburg Center, NYPLRobert Clifton Weaver at HUD headquarters, 1968

About the Author

Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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In July 2000 a ceremony was held to commemorate the renaming of the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, a modular phalanx of concrete and glass designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968. Democratic luminaries such as Andrew Cuomo, Charles Rangel and Daniel Patrick Moynihan gathered to celebrate the dedicatee's life; he was, in Cuomo's words, a "pioneer who broke through barriers of racism again and again, to build a life of extraordinary achievement and public service." The praise was richly deserved, for Robert Clifton Weaver had been a prominent economist, a longtime advocate of fair-housing laws and a member of the country's black intellectual elite ever since the days before the end of segregation. President Lyndon Johnson had appointed Weaver to head HUD after the agency was founded in 1965, making him the first black cabinet official in American history. And it was Weaver who had dedicated the new HUD building three years later, its Brutalist architecture still cutting-edge and the idealism of the Great Society still fresh.

The story of Weaver's life, as told in Wendell Pritchett's new biography, Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City, points to a lesser-known narrative in the long struggle for racial equality--one focused on the politics of Northern cities rather than Southern churches, on economic claims more than moral ones, on regulatory agencies and cabinet meetings rather than lunch-counter sit-ins and mass marches. Yet Pritchett's biography also offers another story, one about the political limits and personal costs of midcentury liberalism for men like Weaver. The New Deal and Great Society policies that Weaver defended only sometimes fulfilled the promise he thought they held for African-Americans, and even then they did so mostly under the pressure of mobilization rather than from the patient and steady work of insiders like him. For all he accomplished during his remarkable life, Weaver emerges as an ambivalent success in Pritchett's book, a man whose greatest dream, that government action could ameliorate the poverty of African-Americans in the country's cities, remained in many ways unrealized. By the time Weaver was rightly memorialized by the renaming of the HUD headquarters in 2000, the building seemed as ponderous and passé as the dreams of Great Society liberalism.

Robert Clifton Weaver was born in 1907 in Washington, DC, the second son of parents descended from several generations of strivers. His maternal great-grandfather, although born a slave in North Carolina, was able to obtain training as a carpenter and to hire himself out to the builders of Raleigh. He gave part of his pay to his master and kept the remainder, and over time he was able to purchase not only his freedom but also that of his wife and six children. Weaver's maternal grandfather grew up in Washington, reaching maturity in the era of Reconstruction. He seized the possibilities of that moment, applying to Harvard University's new dental school two years after the end of the Civil War and becoming the first professionally trained black dentist in the country. Upon graduation in 1869, he moved back to Washington, opened a practice and established a position for himself in Washington's black elite (the "black 400") at a time when the city was known as the "Capital of the Colored Aristocracy." His daughter--Florence Freeman Farley, Weaver's mother--graduated from high school, a rare accomplishment for young black women in the late nineteenth century. Florence knew Latin and read her children Tennyson and Longfellow. (Weaver's father was a high school graduate and a clerk in the Post Office, one of the highest government positions open to African-Americans in the early twentieth century.) The Freeman family legacy was the ardent belief that individual merit and self-reliance could surmount racial hatred. Weaver remembered his mother telling him as a young boy, "The way to offset color prejudice is to be awfully good at whatever you do."

Weaver and his older brother, Mortimer, whom Weaver thought of as the real intellectual of the family, attended Dunbar High School, which was known as the "crown jewel" of the capital's segregated school system. From there, Weaver went to Harvard, yet the migration north was not the journey of improvement it had been for his grandfather. The forty-two black students in the early 1920s--seventeen undergraduates, twenty-five graduates, all male--mostly lived off campus and took their meals apart from the white students. The university president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, barred them from the freshman dorms altogether. As Lowell wrote to the father of an incoming black freshman, "It seems to me that for the colored man to claim that he is entitled to have the white man compelled to live with him is a very unfortunate innovation." (Lowell also advocated for a 15 percent admissions quota for Jewish students to limit their enrollment.) Weaver had trouble taking his studies seriously; he was often distracted by the social life of Cambridge, especially by "courting," as he put it. But after his older brother--who had become an English professor--died in May 1929, the educational and professional ambitions of Weaver's family, its mandate of individual achievement, became his own. His parents, he thought, would be terribly disappointed if he became a lawyer, as he had planned. He had to earn a doctorate. And so he became the first black person to receive a PhD from Harvard in economics.

Harvard's economics department in the 1920s was intellectually and socially conservative, a far cry from what it would become in the postwar era, when John Kenneth Galbraith was on the faculty (or even the 1930s, when it was home to Joseph Schumpeter and Alvin Hansen, the "American Keynes"). Weaver's thesis adviser, William Ripley, argued that the biological superiority of Anglo-Saxons explained the industrial advancement of the United States and Europe. When Weaver began graduate school, he wanted to write a dissertation that would "concern Negroes"; he initially proposed a thesis about "Industrial Education and Industrial Opportunities for the Negro." But once he started work on the thesis, he switched to a more abstract argument about wages and prosperity.

The only jobs open to Weaver when he received his doctorate in 1933 were at black colleges (the first tenure-track black professor would be hired by the University of Chicago in 1942). Although he had taught briefly at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College before he started writing his dissertation, upon completing his degree Weaver turned to politics, first with an organization advocating on behalf of fairer treatment of African-Americans by the National Recovery Administration and then as an adviser on Negro Affairs to Harold Ickes, Roosevelt's Interior Secretary, who directed the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA). Weaver was not the only black adviser in the Roosevelt administration; several dozen young black college graduates and longtime civil rights movement leaders made up the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, known colloquially and in the press as the Black Cabinet.

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