White House

For Obama’s black appointees, a calling that was more than service to country

Christina Cue’s supporting role in history began at a South Carolina rally where she was electrified by an upstart candidate named Barack Obama.

Jason R.L. Wallace’s opportunity came from a chance encounter after his car broke down one Thanksgiving Day. Christopher Epps thought he was applying for an ordinary government job, only to learn in an interview that he’d be a White House appointee.

Their paths were varied, but they all ended up in the Obama administration, among more than 400 African-Americans selected as presidential appointees over the past eight years: campaign volunteers, loyalists from Chicago, private-sector standouts, prominent scholars, public-school teachers and military veterans.

They brought expertise and ideas, but also a deep sense of the historical weight of the moment. Beyond service to country, they embraced a personal mission: ensuring the success of the nation’s first black president.

“Probably after being on the job a couple of months, it started to sink in: ‘Wow, I’m working in the administration of the first African-American president,’ ” said Epps, who served in the Department of Commerce. “And then you talk to former colleagues – and your family, who’s so proud – and you really start to get the breadth and depth of the position.”

The pressure was so intense and the executive branch so isolating that black staff members sought out one another, first for hugs and pep talks, then a brunch of about a dozen, and then, finally, the inaugural meeting of a group that now represents hundreds of African-Americans who’ve served at the highest levels of federal government: the Black Presidential Appointees Association.

Current and former African American appointees met on Sept. 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C., to commemorate their service to the Obama Administration. The convening followed an historic weekend of events celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Sammy Mayo Jr.

Days away from the swearing-in of President-elect Donald Trump and what they jokingly refer to as their “expiration date,” nearly 20 African-American appointees shared memories of the thrills and challenges of being black in the Obama White House.

They listed policy breakthroughs and favorite moments, but also their sacrifices: eight years of missed birthdays and canceled dinner dates, accepted by their families because, like the rest of black America, they knew that this president’s performance would reflect on them all.

They spoke not only of Obama’s legacy but also of their own, wondering what would become of the vibrant black political class that sprang from this administration.

“It’s incredibly exciting to think about in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years, where will we all end up,” said Nate Jenkins, a former Atlanta schoolteacher who’s worked in the White House since 2008. “There’s a lot of talent that’s been developed in this administration that was untapped before. And because we’ve had Barack Obama running the country, a lot more people have raised their hands to say, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ And they’ve been given opportunities they wouldn’t have been given in administrations before.”

No escaping racism

Jason R.L. Wallace’s introduction to the Obama team came through serendipity, when his car broke down in Washington on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.

Jason R.L. Wallace, who's among more than 400 African-American appointees who served during Obama's eight years, traveled extensively with First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the "advance" team, which handles logistics for White House trips. Courtesy of Jason R.L. Wallace

At the time, Obama was president-elect and Wallace was an ambitious young Howard University student who’d already interned at the White House under President George W. Bush. He’d discovered a knack for “advance” work, handling the logistics of presidential travel.

Always on the lookout for networking opportunities, Wallace kept a stack of résumés with him wherever he went, a move that paid off when he was stranded on the side of the road.

“I had no idea what I was going to do. I was stressed out and frustrated,” Wallace said. “And the person who pulled over to help turned out to be the personal aide to the first lady, Michelle Obama.”

Wallace and the Obama aide chatted. He told her about his work for Bush and handed her a résumé before they parted ways. Not long after that, Wallace received a phone call: Michelle Obama was doing an event on the Howard campus – could he help?

He could indeed.

“I ended up traveling with the first lady for four years,” Wallace recalled with a laugh.

Wallace’s job gave him an insider’s view of what the Obamas were like away from the cameras. He was used to staying in the background, a behind-the-scenes guy whose job was to make travel seamless. But Michelle Obama noticed him, like the time she surprised him with a hug after a long day’s work in Los Angeles.

“The first lady is one of the only people I’ve worked for who’s been the same on camera as they are off camera,” Wallace said. “The genuineness, the love and the compassion, the love for people that she has is the same behind the curtain.”

On another presidential trip, to India, Wallace was nervous about proposing to his girlfriend. He polled all the guys around – the agents, the staffers – about what marriage was like. But the best answer, he said, came from watching the Obamas greet each other after a long day of travel and official appearances.

Wallace, who was escorting the first lady, stepped aside when the president arrived, but remained within earshot. The couple hugged and kissed, then teased each other about television appearances, Wallace recalled.

“They were going back and forth very playfully. And I have their schedules – I’ve seen how strenuous it was, how exhausting it must have been,” Wallace said. “But before they walked out, they just had that time together. That was the best advice, without even asking them. It was just seeing them.”

The Obamas’ historical significance became real to him in March 2015, when he worked their trip to Selma, Alabama, where the couple walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years after Alabama state police had beaten and tear-gassed peaceful protesters in the same spot.

“My grandmother told me how she used to pick cotton. My dad owned a restaurant that, when he was younger, he couldn’t have walked into and sat down to eat,” Wallace said. “Being there and being able to cross that bridge was a very emotional experience. It was not just for myself, but for my ancestors.”

But there were also dispiriting moments that punctured the myth that Obama’s election had moved the country beyond centuries of entrenched racism.

When former first lady Betty Ford died in the summer of 2011, Wallace happened to be in California, his home state. As the only advance staffer on the ground, it fell to him not only to arrange Michelle Obama’s logistics, but also to help former first families who were traveling to Palm Springs for the service: the Nixons, the Reagans, the Clintons.

The funeral was put together so quickly that the Secret Service agents in Palm Springs hadn’t received any “S-pins,” the staff pins that grant White House representatives access to restricted areas. They assured him he’d get in without one and gave him a Secret Service official’s business card to show guards once he got to the funeral site.

Wallace arrived and was denied entry. White colleagues, who also didn’t have pins, were allowed in, he said. Local authorities detained him and stuck him in a police car on a blazing July day.

“The first lady lands at the airport and I’m in the back seat of a police car and I’m getting all these calls saying, ‘Jason, where are you?’ ” Wallace recalled.

White House officials eventually got him released, the officer who’d detained him was disciplined and the Secret Service apologized. Still, five years later, the sting remains.

“Even while you’re working for the White House, you’re still black,” Wallace said. “You’re still black and this stuff still happens.”

A new civil rights movement

That awareness hit home for many when, in the second half of Obama’s final term, a string of police shootings of unarmed black people catalyzed a new civil rights movement. Several black appointees spoke of the anguish of that time, and also a shared frustration because they couldn’t express themselves freely in their sensitive government posts.

Because they couldn’t join protests or vent on social media, African-Americans inside the administration began to organize quietly. Christina Cue, the daughter of a pastor and a teacher from Aiken, South Carolina, already had been thinking of a club to connect black appointees to one another and to communities through service projects. She loved her job in the administration but missed the interaction with ordinary people from her days on the campaign trail.

The first “meeting” of what would become the Black Presidential Appointees Association was a brunch Cue arranged with about a dozen staffers in October 2014, when African-Americans across the nation were in collective despair over the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case and a string of other shootings of unarmed black men.

“As a black appointee working for the first black president, it was important to have a sense of community in those moments,” Cue said. “When you can’t articulate or share what you feel, it was important to have people around to talk to, to lean on.”

When they realized they didn’t even have firm figures for the number of African-American appointees, Cue and her friends began counting, office by office, building a tally through word of mouth. They opened membership to black appointees from previous administrations, with an eye toward building intergenerational connections that would let the group endure once Obama left office.

There were monthly meetings, each time at a different agency so that members could get a fuller picture of how the government works. They joined a White House conference call with black personnel to discuss responses to the wave of officer-involved shootings.

“We have family members, brothers and sisters and cousins, across the country – some in urban America, some in rural America – and this could’ve easily been one of them,” recalled Epps, from the Department of Commerce. “The call was being able to vent a little bit, but also to talk about what the current issues are and what we, in our respective areas, could do.”

As it turned out, they could do a lot. In a series of emotional interviews, black appointees described their quiet work that culminated in some of the administration’s seminal moments of African-American uplift.

Dispatched to funerals on behalf of the White House, they fought back tears as they comforted the families of black men killed by police officers. They set up Obama’s historic summit between 1960s-era civil rights leaders and today’s Black Lives Matter activists; those who were in the room described getting chills when they heard civil rights legend C.T. Vivian tell the president, “I would take a bullet for you.”

The appointees beamed as they watched the official events they’d planned come to life, with African dancers in the East Wing and rappers snapping selfies at receptions. They welcomed as many African-Americans as they could to the White House, moved by the men and women who showed up in their Sunday best to see for themselves that a black family lived in a mansion built in part by slave labor.

“African-Americans have been the president’s backbone throughout this entire administration,” said Stephanie Young, a senior adviser in the Office of Public Engagement. “They have supported him unlike any other constituency. They have loved him through absolutely everything. And they have worked extremely hard to protect him.”

But they recognize that there were disappointments, too. Many African-Americans are proud of the symbolism of the first black president but don’t think Obama did enough to improve the lives of ordinary black families, through changes on schools, affordable housing and law enforcement, for example.

This is a sensitive spot for the appointees – they know the difficult, unseen work that went into addressing those issues, and they know the obstruction they met from a Republican-led Congress. Some appointees explain the hurdles. Others flip the question on the critics: What have you done?

“To tackle the issues we’re dealing with requires all of us to do our part. I think a lot of us have done what we could where we were, but there still needed to be so much more,” said Stephanie Gidigbi, who’d worked in politics for years but started with the Obama administration only in the second term. “The reality is at the local level: Are you serving on a board? Do you know who your police chief is? Have you spoken up?”

Life after Obama

Many black staffers had assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election, leaving open the possibility that they’d continue to serve the executive branch.

Donald Trump’s victory has introduced uncertainty: Would he appoint more than a few token African-Americans? Would black professionals even agree to serve Trump after his disparaging comments on racial minorities, immigrants and Muslims?

For some, the answer is an emphatic “no.” They’re moving on to the private sector, starting nonprofits, applying for jobs on Capitol Hill. For others, it’s a dutiful “yes,” with the reasoning that people of color must be present in the Trump administration to represent the interests of minorities.

Many more are unsure, wary of Trump’s record with people of color but eager to keep sharp the skills they’ve honed over the past eight years, eager to keep their hard-won place at the table.

“We’re passionate about our respective issues. You’ll have someone from Department of Interior talking about pollinators. A colleague at the National Park Service ensuring that parks tell stories for all. Our folks from USDA will tell us why rural is critical,” Gidigbi said.

Gidigbi had just wrapped up her last day of work with the Obama administration. She’d served in the Department of Transportation, a job she loved because of her interest in how transit issues intersect with race and housing concerns.

Gidigbi is heading to the nonprofit world, to work on race, health and climate issues in American cities, a natural extension of her government work. This may be a bittersweet moment for many, but she’s entering post-Obama life feeling triumphant.

“You knew the long nights, you knew the events that got missed, you knew the meetings that took all night, and you stayed because you cared, because you were committed,” Gidigbi said. “You stayed because you wanted to make sure we truly did our best. That’s why I can leave today filled with joy, because I know that we did.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam