Robert C. Weaver (born 1907) was a housing expert who served as administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency and then became the first African American cabinet officer when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1966.
Born into a middle-class family in 1907, Robert C. Weaver grew up in a nearly all-white Washington, D.C. neighborhood. The grandson of Robert Tanner Freeman, the first African American, Harvard-educated dentist, Weaver followed his grandfather's footsteps and enrolled at Harvard after graduation from Dunbar High School. At Harvard he majored in economics and graduated cum laude in 1929. Two years later he received a master's from Harvard. After teaching economics one year at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, Weaver returned to Harvard in 1932 on a scholarship and pursued a Ph.D. in economics conferred in 1934.
Deeply concerned that African Americans receive their fair share from the New Deal, Weaver joined Clark Foreman as an adviser on African American affairs for Harold Ickes' Department of the Interior. Under Weaver's prodding, the DOI's Public Works Administration (PWA) achieved a fine record for its treatment of African Americans. The Harvard economist particularly made sure that they received adequate consideration in PWA-sponsored public housing. Weaver remained in the federal government until 1944, serving in a number of advisory roles with the United States Housing Authority, the National Defense Advisory Commission, the Office of Production Management, the War Production Board, and the War Manpower Commission.
Just as important as these official positions was Weaver's leadership role in the informal Federal Council on Negro Affairs. Created in 1936, the council served as President Roosevelt's adviser on African American affairs, helped sensitize FDR to their needs and aspirations, and assured unprecedented commitments to African Americans.
Upon leaving the federal government in 1944, Weaver joined the Mayor's Committee on Race Relations in Chicago as its first executive secretary. While in Chicago he also served on the Metropolitan Housing Council. In 1946 he traveled to the former Soviet Union as a member of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration's mission to the Ukraine.
After his return, Weaver taught at Northwestern University, Columbia University Teachers College, New York University, and the New School for Social Research between 1947 and 1951. He also completed his two most important books after leaving government work: Negro Labor; A National Problem (1946) and The Negro Ghetto (1948). The latter was one of the first works to explore segregation in the North.
Besides his writing and teaching, Weaver assumed the directorship of the John Hay Whitney Foundation in 1949 and oversaw the distribution of fellowships to deserving African Americans for further study. He remained with the foundation until 1955, when Governor W. Averell Harriman of New York named him deputy state rent commissioner. Within a year Harriman promoted Weaver to state rent administrator, the first cabinet level position ever held by an African American in New York state.
Weaver soon broke additional ground and became the highest federal administrator ever when John F. Kennedy nominated him administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) and overseer of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Community Facilities Administration, Federal National Mortgage Association, Urban Renewal Administration, and Public Housing Administration. Kennedy's choice for the HHFA job proved controversial, primarily because he chaired the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In addition, he strongly opposed segregated public housing, advocated the use of FHA mortgage insurance to integrate the suburbs, and insisted that the Urban Renewal Program stop uprooting so many poor African Americans. As a result, the nomination faced congressional delay and defiance, particularly from southerners. Nevertheless, Congress finally confirmed him and he took office February 11, 1961.
Unlike his predecessors, the new HHFA head wished to create a more rational urban complex rather than merely more housing production. He also believed that the independent agencies under HHFA needed more coordination and attempted to control better their personnel and budgets. Meanwhile, Weaver helped write the Housing Act of 1961, which he described as "a blend of the old and the new." Overall, it relied more on existing machinery rather than new programs. Among its features were provision for 100, 000 public housing units and a four-year authorization of $2.5 billion for reviving center cities.
Although Congress willingly agreed to pass the omnibus bill, its refusal to approve another bill directly affected Weaver's career. From the beginning of his administration, John F. Kennedy firmly believed that the nation needed a cabinet post on urban affairs. Only then, Kennedy believed, could order and direction be given to the many federal programs operating in metropolitan areas. Weaver, it appeared, would be the obvious choice to head the new cabinet post. But the prospect of having an African American cabinet officer seemed too much for Southern congressmen who felt little need for such a position anyway. As a result, they defeated all efforts by the president to create such a department.
Not until after Kennedy's assassination did urban America attain its own department, and then many expected that a white mayor would be selected to head it. After reviewing more than 200 applications, however, Johnson named Weaver as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1966. Weaver helped organize and manage the growing department for the next two years, leaving after Richard Nixon's victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. On retiring from federal service, the former HUD chief became the first president of Bernard M. Baruch College, a new component of the City University of New York system. He left Baruch in 1970 to become Distinguished Professor of Urban Affairs at Hunter College in New York City. For the next eight years he taught and directed the Urban Affairs Research Center. Weaver also maintained involvement in the civil rights movement and served on the boards of 13 prestigious companies. Later, Mayor Edward Koch of New York appointed the then 75-year-old Weaver as a member of a nine member board to supervise the city's rent-stabilized apartments in 1982.
Further Reading on Robert C. Weaver
A treatment of Weaver's early career can be found in Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (1978) and Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard (1959). Mark I. Gelfand provides a good analysis of Weaver's career heading the HHFA in A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933-1965 (1975).