Magazine article Financial History

From the Dustbowl to the Federal Reserve

Magazine article Financial History

From the Dustbowl to the Federal Reserve

Article excerpt

As voters consider the possibility of the first black President in US history being succeeded by the first woman President in US history, that socio-political change would reflect a similar series of changes that took place on the Federal Reserve board decades earlier. Fifty years ago, Andrew Brimmer became the first black member of the Fed's Board of Governors. He served until 1974. Four years later, Nancy H. Teeters, previously chief economist for the House Budget Committee, became the first woman to serve on the Fed board.

In Brimmer's brief eight and a half years on the board, he became known as an expert on international monetary policy, according to the Fed's official biography. From the start he joined other tightmoney members on the board in supporting a gradual increase in interest rates to fight inflation. He was also a man of perspicacity. When Congress raised taxes and cut spending to curb inflation, he was one of the first board members to call for the reduction of interest rates.

In later years, he used his position on the board to draw attention to the economic plight of black Americans. Brimmer left the Fed before the end of his 14-year term to join the faculty of Harvard Business School. He taught there for two years before founding his own consulting firm, Brimmer & Company.

From 1995 to 1997, Brimmer led the District of Columbia financial control board, which Congress created to manage the city's troubled finances. His daughter, Esther Brimmer, is a professor of international affairs at George Washington University in DC.

The Fed has had two black governors since Brimmer: Emmett Rice, nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, and Roger Ferguson, nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

According to Brimmer's obituary in Bloomberg, Ferguson said in a 2002 speech to college students that, as a teenager growing up in Washington in 1966, he followed newspaper accounts of Brimmer's barrier-breaking appointment and, in the process, "became absolutely fascinated with economics and with this institution, the Federal Reserve."

Brimmer served on the Tuskegee University board of directors from 1965 to 2010 and as the board's chairman for 28 years, making him the longest-serving chairman in the school's history. The institute's business school building is named for Brimmer.

He published several books, including Life Insurance Companies in the Capital Market (1962), The World Banking System: Outlook in a Context of Crisis (1985) and Trends, Prospects & Strategies for Black Economic Progress (1985).

Brimmer was born in Newellton, Louisiana, in 1926. He was the son of a sharecropper and had no choice but to attend segregated schools. He served in the Army for just a few months at the tail end of World War II.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson in 1974, Brimmer described his journey from the South in the context of US history. "I was part of the same outwardbound stream of people - literally thousands of them - that had migrated out of the area since World War I, although interrupted by the Depression, of course," he said. "It was Steinbeck's dust bowl of The Grapes of Wrath - Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Louisiana. There were very few opportunities."

After the brief stint in the military, Brimmer attended the University of Washington, where he earned both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in economics in 1950 and '51. Upon completing the latter, Brimmer received a Fulbright scholarship to study in India, and in 1952, he began attending Harvard University. …

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