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The Boule pays tribute to the 21 black Cabinet secretaries

The Sigma Pi Phi fraternity brought the glitz and the bling while 10 black White House Cabinet secretaries packed the glamour and the resumes for a celebratory reunion recently in Washington, D.C.

The unprecedented Salute to the Secretaries gala, sponsored by the fraternity, honored all of the black officials who have served as Cabinet secretaries. Of the 545 leaders who have held those posts, only 21, or less than 4 percent, have been black, with Robert C. Weaver as the first, in 1966. Eight of them attended historically black institutions.

Sigma Pi Phi is a prestigious professional fraternity whose membership has featured some of the most accomplished, affluent and influential black men in the nation, including Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois. The 5,000-member fraternity, more commonly known as The Boule, was founded in 1904 during an era of entrenched segregation when black folks weren’t allowed to join most predominantly white professional organizations.

The late Robert C. Weaver served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration from 1966-69, while John King is the most recent appointee (March 2016), currently serving as secretary of Education in President Barack Obama’s White House.

During a remarkable night of tributes, the dominant theme was to remember the winding journey while paying homage to those who broke the barriers. As Alexis Herman, who graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana and served as secretary of Labor from 1997-2001, said during her award speech: “I am so proud – as the first black secretary of Labor – to lead the Labor Department in a country that was built on the labor of slavery. We stand on their shoulders and the shoulders of the other African-American secretaries who came before us.”

Herman was among 10 secretaries who appeared at the gala for the honors program at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, as some secretaries were recognized posthumously and others couldn’t attend because of scheduling conflicts. Each secretary was awarded a translucent glass plaque, about the size of a brick, highlighted with the inscription “Sigma Pi Phi.”

Robert C. Weaver was sworn in today as the Nation's first African-American Cabinet Member. He took the oath of office as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at a White House Ceremony.

Robert C. Weaver was sworn in today as the Nation’s first African-American Cabinet Member. He took the oath of office as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at a White House Ceremony.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The festive night featured an impassioned speech by former attorney general Eric Holder on the harsh realities of America, a compelling plea for caution and social tolerance by Jeh Johnson, current secretary of Homeland Security, and a statement of political exasperation by Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, former secretary of Health and Human Services.

Before the gala began, Sullivan was eager to talk politics.

Unabashedly. No holds barred.

“I am a Republican,” Sullivan emphatically told The Undefeated, “but I am voting for Hillary. I’m not that fired up about Hillary, but I detest Donald Trump so much.”

Sullivan, 83, was an undergraduate biology major and chemistry minor at Morehouse College. He served as secretary of HHS during President George H.W. Bush’s administration from 1989 to 1993.

Sullivan graduated cum laude from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1958 during a segregated era when he couldn’t attend medical school in his native Georgia. He was the founding dean, in 1975, of the Morehouse Medical Education Program, the precursor to the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Sullivan lauded Bush as a man “of great integrity and good judgment,” saying during his award speech that the president supported his mission to increase the representation of people of color and women in the department. Sullivan’s initiative led to the appointment, among others, of Antonia Novello in 1990 as surgeon general, the first woman and first Hispanic to hold that position.

Herman, secretary of Labor; Mike Espy, secretary of Agriculture; Rodney Slater, secretary of Transportation, and Togo West, secretary of Veterans Affairs, represented President Bill Clinton’s administration on the awards dais.

Roderick Paige, secretary of Education, and Alphonso Jackson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, served during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Holder, former attorney general at the Department of Justice in Obama’s administration, was joined by two current Obama Cabinet members: Anthony Foxx, secretary of Transportation, and Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security.

Holder and Johnson received the most thunderous applause from the standing-room-only audience of approximately 1,000 during the night of honors.

Holder, known for his fearless outspokenness as the nation’s first black attorney general, focused on today’s volatile political climate during the run-up to November’s presidential election.

He obviously was referring to Trump during his award speech, though he didn’t mention him by name. “We are in a far better place now than where we were before,” said Holder, a Columbia graduate who served as Obama’s attorney general from 2009 to 2015. “But having said that, we hear claims of making America great again. When was it better for African-Americans than now. In the 1940s? The 1950s?

 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says goodbye to Justice Department employees as he leaves the Robert F. Kennedy building with his wife April 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says goodbye to Justice Department employees as he leaves the Robert F. Kennedy building with his wife April 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Was America great for everyone during those times?”

Johnson, whose family has been affiliated with the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity for 80 years, addressed the crowd on the myriad issues attached to terrorism, referencing San Bernardino, California, Orlando, Florida, and Istanbul. “We live in challenging times,” said Johnson, a graduate of Morehouse College before attending Columbia Law School. “The global threat of terrorism is one of the most difficult challenges we’ve ever faced. In our pursuit to degrade and defeat our enemies, we must not forget who we are as Americans.”

Johnson, the nation’s first black secretary of Homeland Security, added that good and decent Americans must not stand idly by and be drowned out by demagoguery and fiery rhetoric: “We can’t fan the flames of bigotry and hate in the process. Those of us who do not know our history are bound to repeat it. During these challenging times, we must remember what Dr. King said, that there comes a time when the sound of silence is the sound of betrayal.”

Espy, who went undergrad at Howard University before attending University of Santa Clara law school, spoke of the closeness of Clinton’s Cabinet in paying homage to Ron Brown, then the first black secretary of Commerce and former head of the Democratic National Committee. Brown was killed in a plane crash in 1996.

“In the Clinton administration,” said Espy, who served 1993-94, “Ron Brown was the godfather; he was my big brother. Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been elected without Ron Brown. If Ron were alive today, can’t you just see him debating Donald Trump?”

Espy added during a moment of levity, “We all would get together and have meals of red beans and rice. And Alexis [Herman] did the cooking.”

The first black woman to hold a Cabinet secretary position was Patricia Roberts Harris, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 as HUD secretary. The Howard University graduate later became secretary of HHS in 1979, becoming the first and only black person to hold two different Cabinet positions within the same administration. Harris, who earned her law degree at George Washington University, died of breast cancer in 1985.

Slater, who grew up in rural Mississippi picking cotton and peaches beginning at age 6 with his mother, summoned a vivid metaphor for the hardships of his life’s journey to University of Arkansas law school and his ascension to transportation secretary, serving from 1997 to 2001. “Transportation is like that,” Slater explained. “It can make crooked ways straight; it can be a bridge over troubled waters. Keep moving forward.”

West, who attended Howard University, recognized William T. Coleman Jr., the second black person to serve as a White House Cabinet secretary. Coleman, 95, whose health is too fragile for traveling, served as secretary of Transportation during President Gerald Ford’s administration. He is the oldest living former Cabinet secretary.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter watches as Patricia Roberts Harris is sworn in Washington, Friday, August 3, 1979 as Secretary of Health, Education Welfare.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter watches as Patricia Roberts Harris is sworn in Washington, Friday, August 3, 1979 as Secretary of Health, Education Welfare.

AP Photo/Cook

“Secretary Coleman always made time for us,” said West, who served as secretary of the Army before landing his VA secretary position from 1998 to 2000. “From him, we learned the greatest success a person can have is to bring a mighty heart.”

Paige, who attended Jackson State, became the first black secretary of Education in 2001. He spoke of his No Child Left Behind program during the Bush administration.

“If you look carefully, the lack of education is at the root of most of our problems,” Paige said. “There is a huge achievement gap between African-American students and other students. I wasn’t going to accept that. What’s worse was the low expectations. It’s not just their problem; it’s our problem.”

Jackson, who served as HUD secretary from 2004-2008, focused on the common bond for all black secretaries that crosses over party lines.

“There are precious few black Cabinet secretaries,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference if they are Republican or Democrat. We all get up every morning the same color – and that is black. When we wake up in the morning, think about what we have accomplished.”

Foxx reflected on his ancestry, dating to slavery, and the irony of his appointment by Obama in 2013 as transportation secretary. “My family started in Carthage, North Carolina,” said Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. “My great-great grandmother was sold into slavery there in the 1860s. Her son raised 13 children. They all went to college. All he had was a fifth-grade education and he was hauling things on his truck to make money.

“Now, I’m the secretary of Transportation, and I’m regulating things being hauled in trucks.”

The Sigma Pi Phi Boule meets biennially in various cities on a rotating basis for gatherings that feature seminars, workshops, speeches, recreational activities and elections of fraternity officers. The Boule, which means “council of noblemen” and is the first Greek-letter fraternity for black men, was formed by two academic doctors, a dentist and a physician for professional, social and cultural enrichment and engagement.

Cabinet secretaries who belong to the Boule are: Howard C. Weaver, Brown, Sullivan, Espy, Slater, West, Paige, Jackson, Foxx, Johnson, and Holder, who left a captive audience with a heartfelt message.

In a stirring closing that drew a vociferous standing ovation to end the gala’s festivities, Holder struck a call-to-action tone, “This is a very important election. We see someone who is qualified and someone who is temperamentally not qualified. We must make America great – not great again. We must keep America great.”

Black White House Cabinet secretaries in chronological order in the administrations they served.

Robert C. Weaver, Housing and Urban Development, 1966-1969, President Lyndon Johnson, Harvard University

William T. Coleman Jr., Transportation, 1975-1977, President Gerald Ford, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University

Patricia Roberts Harris, Housing and Urban Development, 1977-1979, Health and Human Services, 1979-1981, President Jimmy Carter, Howard University, George Washington University

Samuel R. Pierce Jr., Health and Human Services, 1981-1989, President Ronald Reagan, Cornell University, New York University

Louis W. Sullivan, Health and Human Services, 1989-1993, President George H.W. Bush, Morehouse College, Boston University

Jesse Brown, Veterans Affairs, 1993-1997, President Bill Clinton, City Colleges of Chicago, University of Chicago, Catholic University

Ronald H. Brown, Commerce, 1993-1996, President Bill Clinton, Middlebury College, St. John’s University

Mike Espy, Agriculture, 1993-1994, President Bill Clinton, Howard University, Santa Clara University

Hazel O’Leary, Energy, 1993-1996, President Bill Clinton, Fisk University, Rutgers University

Alexis Herman, Labor, 1997-2001, President Bill Clinton, Xavier University of Louisiana

Rodney Slater, Transportation, 1997-2001, President Bill Clinton, Eastern Michigan University, University of Arkansas

Togo West, Veterans Affairs, 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton, Howard University

Roderick Paige, Education, 2001-2005, President George W. Bush, Jackson State, University of Indiana

Colin Powell, State, 2001-2005, President George W. Bush, City College of New York, George Washington University

Alphonso Jackson, Housing and Urban Development, 2004-2008, President George W, Bush, Truman State University, Washington University

Condoleezza Rice, State, 2005-2009, President George W. Bush, University of Denver, Notre Dame

Eric H. Holder Jr., Justice, 2009-2015, President Barack Obama, Columbia University

Anthony Foxx, Transportation, 2013-present, President Barack Obama, Davidson College, New York University

Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security, 2013-present, President Barack Obama, Morehouse College, Columbia University

Loretta Lynch, Justice, 2015-present, President Barack Obama, Harvard University

John King, Education, 2016-present, President Barack Obama, Harvard University, Columbia University, Yale University

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.