Andrew Brimmer, Who Broke Color Barrier at Fed, Dies at 86

Andrew Brimmer, Who Broke Color Barrier on Fed Board
Federal Reserve Governor Andrew Brimmer smiles in a headshot taken circa 1970. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Andrew Brimmer, an economist who became the first black member of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him in 1966, has died. He was 86.

He died on Oct. 7 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, said his daughter, Esther Brimmer. Though ill for the past few years, he had continued working until a month ago, she said. He was a resident of Washington since 1965.

The son of a Louisiana sharecropper, Brimmer moved north to pursue higher education and didn’t stop until he had a Ph.D. from Harvard Business School in Boston. He worked as a staff economist in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and as an assistant professor of economics before becoming a deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President John F. Kennedy.

In nominating Brimmer as a Fed governor on Feb. 26, 1966, Johnson said, “He is a man of wide professional experience and great personal integrity, a man of moderation whose brilliance is combined with a sense of fair play that I believe will enable him to serve with distinction.”

The lead story in the next day’s New York Times carried the headline, “Johnson Appoints Negro Economist to Reserve Board.”

The Senate Banking Committee endorsed the nomination without dissent, and 11 days after his name was proposed, in the East Room of the White House with Johnson looking on, Brimmer was sworn in by Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin Jr. With the addition of Brimmer, the seven-member Fed board had, for the first time, a majority of professional economists, according to the Times.

Fighting Inflation

During more than eight years on the Fed, Brimmer became known as an expert on international monetary policy. Early on, he supported the board’s effort to combat inflation by gradually raising interest rates. After Congress and Johnson raised taxes and trimmed spending in 1968, Brimmer was one of the first Fed governors to call for easing the rates.

In his later years on the board, he drew attention for blunt observations on the economic conditions of black Americans.

“I do feel that the economic plight of blacks is a serious matter,” the Times quoted him in a 1973 article. “So I bring the same economist’s tool kit to that subject as other economists bring to examine other national economic problems.”

Brimmer researched income and wage disparities between white and black Americans. His public comments on black America, according to the Times, included references to black-owned banks as “ornaments” and to the “fallacy of black capitalism.”

Black-Owned Banks

He said that black-owned banks seemed focused on investing deposits in U.S. securities, not in their own neighborhoods, the Times reported. “Perhaps inadvertently,” he said, the banks “may be diverting resources from the black community into the financing of the national debt.”

Brimmer served 8 1/2 years of his 14-year term, stepping down in 1974 to join the faculty of Harvard Business School.

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.

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.”

‘Role Model’

Now the chief executive officer of TIAA-CREF, Ferguson said today in an e-mail:

“Andy Brimmer was a trailblazer and a role model for a generation of African-Americans who aspired to be economic policy makers. Only in America could the son of a sharecropper rise to become a national leader. Andy’s passing will be mourned deeply.”

After his Fed tenure, Brimmer formed Brimmer & Co., an economic consulting firm, and wrote an economics column for Black Enterprise magazine. From 1995 to 1998, he served as the first chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board, created by Congress to oversee the finances of the nation’s capital.

Since 1999, he served as principal economic policy adviser to Bermuda’s Ministry of Finance, and he was recently appointed chairman of a newly created Bermuda Deposit Insurance Corp., according to a statement by Premier Paula Cox.

Tuskegee Ties

He was a board member for more than 40 years at Tuskegee University in Alabama, which named its business school building for him.

“He was always looking for opportunities to learn more and teach more,” his daughter, who is U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said today in an interview. “He had a thirst for knowledge.”

Brimmer is also survived by his wife, the former Doris Scott.

Andrew Felton Brimmer Jr. was born on Sept. 13, 1926, in Newellton, a rural village of 800 in northeastern Louisiana. His father, Andrew Sr., was a sharecropper and warehouse worker, according to a 1995 Times profile.

After high school, Brimmer left the South for Seattle. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, then attended the University of Washington, where he earned an undergraduate degree in economics in 1950 and a master’s degree in 1951. He studied in India at the Delhi School of Economics and the University of Bombay as a Fulbright scholar. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard Business School in 1957.

Mass Migration

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson in 1974, Brimmer described his journey from the South in the context of U.S. history.

“I was part of the same outward-bound 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.”

Following his studies at Harvard and work at the New York Fed, Brimmer taught at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in Philadelphia. Kennedy made him deputy assistant secretary of commerce for economic affairs, and Johnson elevated him to assistant secretary in January 1965.

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