Schomburg Center, NYPL
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.”