Son of Jamaican immigrant became the first Black US secretary

Emmanuel Kwarteng December 10, 2022
Clifford Alexander, Jr. Image Courtesy U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionImage Courtesy of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

With his appointment as secretary of the United States Army in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, Clifford Leopold Alexander Jr. made history as the nation’s first African-American secretary. Alexander has had a variety of jobs, from being a private in the National Guard to working at the Department of Foreign Affairs under President Kennedy. He was also one of the top civilians in the U.S. Army. says that Alexander was in charge of the Department of Army’s $33 billion budget and its administrative, training, operational, logistical support, and readiness functions. 

As secretary of the Army, Alexander pushed for people to join the Army after the Vietnam War outside of the official draft process. He also worked to improve the position of women in the U.S. Army. Alexander also pushed for the conversion of the American Army to an all-volunteer force.

During Alexander’s time as Secretary of the Army, the U.S. Army gave priority to inclusiveness within its structure. This was in line with national efforts to give people of color more power in the country. How the U.S. Army conducts itself now is still shaped by Alexander’s tenure as secretary of the Army, as the National Museum of the United States Army wrote about him.

Born to Clifford L. and Edith (McAllister) Alexander on September 21, 1933, he grew up in New York City. His father was a Jamaican immigrant who managed the Riverton Houses, a residential development in Harlem. Alexander earned a BA with honors from Harvard in 1955 and a law degree from Yale Law School in 1958. Alexander was appointed an assistant district attorney in New York County in 1959. 

He did this job until 1961, when he started helping out with different groups in New York City, such as Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited. This group helped young African Americans in Harlem get better access to schools and jobs. In addition, it pushed for educational reforms that will benefit Black communities.

He headed the Manhattanville Hamilton Grange Neighborhood Conservation Project as its executive director between 1961 and 1962. Alexander made his way into Washington politics in 1963, when he was hired as a foreign affairs officer by the National Security Council in Washington, D.C. Alexander served as a presidential counselor from 1963 to 1967, first under President Kennedy and then under President Johnson. 

Owing to his knowledge and expertise, Alexander was chosen to lead the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There, he looked into how different American companies handle the employment process. He stayed in this capacity until he resigned during the Nixon administration.

According to People, Alexander left government service during the Nixon administration and went on to become the first Black partner at a major D.C. law firm and the anchor of a syndicated news commentary show before being tapped by Carter for the role of Army secretary. 

People further revealed that by the time Alexander left his job as Secretary of the U.S. Army, he had made it possible for other Black commanders to become generals, including Colin Powell, who would later become the first African-American Secretary of State. Alexander died on July 1, 2020, in his New York City home. He was 88 years old. 

It’s humbling to know that Alexander has joined the long list of persons of African descent who have contributed greatly to America’s prosperity in their various fields and capacities. Their monumental efforts deserve to be recorded for posterity.

Last Edited by:iboateng Updated: December 10, 2022


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