Success Story Women February 04, 2021 at 02:00 pm

Here’s the real-life ‘Olivia Pope’ who was also the first Black woman to lead a White House press briefing

Ama Nunoo February 04, 2021 at 02:00 pm

February 04, 2021 at 02:00 pm | Success Story, Women

White House Deputy Press Secretary Judy Smith briefs the press in the White House Briefing Room in 1991. (Screengrab from video: via George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)

Black women have been breaking barriers for ages now and one little-known unsung hero is Judy Smith, the first Black woman to lead a White House Press briefing. Many might not have heard of Smith because, during her time at the White House, press briefings were not televised.

That notwithstanding, she opened the doors for many Black people especially women to follow in her stead. Today the Biden-Harris administration has three Black women — Symone Sanders, Ashley Etienne, and Karine Jean-Pierre — in its all-women communications team.

Smith was the deputy press secretary and her first press briefing in 1991 under the administration of former President George W. Bush marked the first time ever a Black woman was addressing the ever-ready reporters at the podium alone and speaking for the president.

Press briefings were not really televised and there was no social media either. The smart Black woman, working in a male-dominated White house where people wore mostly dark-colored suits, brought color with her to the office.

As seen during her first press briefing, Smith donned a bold white blazer, oversized earrings and a strand of pearls and all anyone could see at the time was her personality oozing through her role as she gave straightforward answers to the press, People reported.

Then there were more colored suits after that; red, her favorite yellow, blue and the classic white. To Smith, appearances tell a lot about a person and so she was intentional about how she presented herself to the world and her colleagues.

The American University’s Washington College of Law alumna was recruited by then press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who at the time hired Smith for her competency and not the fact that she was Black or a woman to make any political statement.

“She came from a different culture than me. I’m a farm boy from Kansas and she was the city girl from Washington in addition to being a Black woman. I had a couple of deputy press secretaries who were women so that really wasn’t new,” Fitzwater said. “The fact that she was Black didn’t have any effect at all.”

Smith, however, knew her job at the White House was a dream come true. She was overjoyed when she got to know that her role had paved the way for many people of color especially Black women.

“I didn’t think about it at the time. What I thought about at the time was that going to work in the White House was just such an incredible opportunity. It was a dream come true,” she said.

“I didn’t understand the significance of what that was, getting up briefing at that moment, seeing a Black woman behind the podium, speaking on behalf of the president to the American public.”

Being Black and a part of the president’s inner circle came with its own form of discrimination. Smith was once told she was not a part of the president’s traveling team because she forgot her white House Badge and the security officers then would not let her join them because they did not believe her.

Smith now commends the current Biden -Harris administration for bringing the much-needed diversity to the White House.

“I’m a big believer that you get the best results when you have a diverse team, different perspectives and viewpoints … it’s helpful to have people who don’t think exactly the way you do and women have always been very strong in communications field,” she said. “And really, this is something that could have taken place earlier. It’s not as if there’s been a shortage of women in communications.”

Smith became a celebrated communications expert, a successful crisis management expert and the CEO of Smith & Company after her work at the White House was done. Her company represents Fortune 500 companies and celebrities like Angelina Jolie.  

It took ABC’s Scandal, the first primetime series with a Black female lead for Smith’s story to be heard by the world after nearly 40 years. Shonda Rhimes picked on Smith’s work after she left the White House for the hit TV series Scandal.

Smith is, therefore, the real Olivia Pope. According to her, the character portrayed how she operated except that she (Smith) never had an affair with the president, she told People.

The character Olivia Pope played by Kerry Washington speaks true to who Smith is — very good at her job and almost always gets the job done.

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