How 3 black economists helped illuminate inequality in America

This February, in honor of Black History Month, we spotlight the accomplishments of three prominent 20th-century African American economists. Follow along with us as we explore the lives and applaud the contributions of these exemplary leaders.

Marcus Alexis (1932-2009)

Born in 1932 in Chicago, Dr. Marcus Alexis rose to become one of the nation’s leading economists, helping to inspire future generations of African Americans to pursue a career in economics. After graduating from Brooklyn College with a Bachelor of Arts, Alexis received a master’s degree in economics from Michigan State in 1954. He then earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Minnesota in 1959, becoming the first black student at the school to do so.

Dr. Alexis’ time in the field of education, however, was only just beginning. Next, he enrolled in post-doctoral studies at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), and also taught at Macalester College, DePaul University and the University of Rochester, before arriving at Northwestern University in 1970. Alexis was an economics and business professor for over three decades at the suburban Chicago school, serving as chair of the school’s economic department on two separate occasions. He retired as professor emeritus of management and strategy at the university’s Kellogg School of Management.

Alexis was noted for his contributions to the studies of urban economics and public policy, and spent much of his career devoted to improving the economic landscape for African Americans. He was also an original member of the Black Enterprise Board of Economists, an organization that sought to better the economic status of blacks across the globe.

Rising to prominence at a time when there were few black economists in the U.S., Alexis helped encourage and inspire countless minorities to join the profession. In 1974, he co-founded the American Economic Association’s Summer Program, which “encouraged and prepared promising minority students to pursue graduate study in economics.” Today, approximately 20% of minority economists in the U.S. that hold doctorate degrees are graduates of the program.

In 1979, Alexis was appointed to the Interstate Commerce Commission by President Jimmy Carter, where he led efforts to deregulate the surface transportation industry. In 1985, he was named director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also serving as chairman in 1990. Upon his death in 2009, a tribute to the highly regarded economist noted Alexis “used his success and his personal gifts—his intellect, his humor and his charisma—to advance the cause of African Americans in higher education, and to open wider the doors of economic opportunity for all.”

Phyllis Ann Wallace (1921-1993)

Dr. Phyllis Ann Wallace, born in Baltimore in 1921, devoted much of her career as an economist to the study of black unemployment in the U.S., particularly among women, in addition to rooting out workplace discrimination. After graduating from New York University with a degree in economics, she went on to study at Yale University, earning her doctorate in economics in 1948—the first black woman in school history to do so.

In the 1950s, Wallace worked at the National Bureau of Economic Research and for the federal government as an economic analyst, in addition to serving four years as an economics professor at Atlanta University. In 1965, she joined the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as chief of technical studies. The EEOC, established by Congress with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was created to prohibit discrimination in the workplace. During her four years at the EEOC, Wallace worked vigorously to enforce the laws of the commission. Her extensive research ultimately led to a landmark ruling by the federal government against AT&T in 1973, finding the telecom giant guilty of racial and gender discrimination.

Wallace left the EEOC for the Metropolitan Applied Research Center in New York, where she served as vice president of research from 1969 to 1972. She then worked as a visiting professor at MIT, becoming the first female tenured professor at the university’s Sloan School of Management in 1975. While at MIT, she continued her studies of unemployment patterns among U.S. minorities, penning her first of several books, Pathways to Work: Unemployment Among Black Teenage Females, in 1974. In 1982, Wallace’s book Black Women in the Labor Force was published, ultimately helping to change the way the government measured employment statistics for black women.

After retiring from MIT in 1986, Wallace served as the Industrial Relations Research Association’s first black and female president in 1988. A lifelong social and political activist, she remained devoted to equal-opportunity employment and anti-discrimination causes until her death in 1993.

Wallace’s contributions to the field are perhaps best summarized by James and Julianne Cicarelli, authors of the book Distinguished Women Economists, who conclude that Wallace “single-handedly helped economists to understand the distinctive characteristics of black women in the U.S. labor force, forever changing the breadth and depth of economic research dealing with the status of minorities in it.”

Andrew Brimmer (1926-2012)

Born in 1926 to a Louisiana sharecropper in the racially-segregated South, Dr. Andrew Brimmer rose to become the first African American on the U.S. Federal Reserve’s board of governors. After serving in the Army during World War II, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Washington, and studied at the Delhi School of Economics in India as a Fulbright Scholar.

In 1957, Brimmer received his doctorate in economics from Harvard, while simultaneously working as a staff economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the late 1950s, he also worked closely with Sudanese government leaders to establish the central bank of Sudan.

After serving as an economics professor at several U.S. universities throughout the early 1960s, President John Kennedy tapped Brimmer to become deputy assistant secretary of economic affairs at the Commerce Department. During his three years at the department, Brimmer successfully tackled the nation's balance-of-payments deficit, persuading foreign companies to invest more heavily in the U.S.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Brimmer to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the Fed), at a time when board members were starkly divided over the future of monetary policy. The first black member to serve on the board, Brimmer was hailed by Time magazine as “the Federal Reserve Board’s Jackie Robinson.” As The New York Times reported, Brimmer originally joined Fed Chair William McChesney Martin in support of rate increases, before becoming the first board member to call for rate cuts a few years later.

During his time on the board, Brimmer was well-known for his expertise on international monetary policy. He also became a champion for improving the economic plight of impoverished African Americans, continuing this advocacy long after he left the Fed for a Harvard professorship in 1974. Upon his death in 2012, Roger Ferguson, former vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board during the Clinton and Bush administrations, called Brimmer “a role model for a generation of African Americans who aspired to be economic policy makers.”

In closing

Drs. Alexis, Wallace and Brimmer were pioneers of their era, rising to prominence in a field where, at the time, few African Americans held high-level positions. But their impacts went far beyond the classroom and office. Each used their influence to address economic inequality and racial and gender discrimination in 20th-century America, helping move the needle toward a fairer, more inclusive society while inspiring future generations to do the same.

This February, we remember, we reflect and we give thanks.