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Remembering Viola Harkins — President Carter’s Very First Letter Opener

Nearly lost in the archives are the stories of Black History Month

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash

Black Americans helped Jimmy Carter get elected and then they helped him run the country. Ten years before he was to be elected to Congress, John Lewis rallied new voters to support Carter as the head of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project. Once in office, Carter appointed Patricia Roberts Harris as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the first Black woman to run a cabinet office. When asked about her background during the confirmation hearing, Harris explained:

“You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, the daughter of a Pullman car waiter. I am a Black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”

During Black History Month, Congressman Lewis and Secretary Roberts Harris are the ones we will celebrate, but it’s the lesser known public servants that are too often forgotten.

Take Viola Harkins as an example.

Like so many before her, Harkins came to her job in the White House from the campaign. A recent college graduate, she’d been the “very first letter opener” in Atlanta and moved on to the transition team in DC once Carter was elected. A staff directory from the Carter-Mondale transition group listed her as “Vi Harkins”. She was 26 years old and worked in Room 5546. You could call her at extension 25576.

In January, when Jimmy Carter went on television to ask the country for advice on how to avoid feeling “isolated” in the White House, Harkins said to the Washington Post: “What the hell is he doing?” Carter had included the address of the temporary transition headquarters: PO Box 2600, Washington, DC, 2012. Three thousand letters arrived in the first week for Harkins and the others to open.

Leaders of the transition team, like Jack Watson, were acutely aware of the diversity of those chosen to oversee the move to the White House. In November, they circulated a memo summarizing the professional staff: “Re: Affirmative Action”. “Blacks” made up 11% of the team; 36% were women. Watson wrote on the memo that he was “extremely pleased with the competence & character” of the group. Harkins, though, held the position of secretary, too far down on the organization chart to show up in those counts.

Once the transition ended, Harkins headed to the White House as a receptionist for the First Lady, Rosalynn Carter. She worked there for the next for the next 10 months, until her background check was completed. Then she was fired.

The Secret Service had discovered that Harkins had recently seen a friend from college. While students at Southern Illinois University, the two had volunteered on a breakfast program sponsored by the Black Panther Party, though neither had been a member of the Party. At the time, this is what passed for a security risk at the White House. The President’s cousin, Hugh Carter, soon dismissed Harkins from her job and barred her from the White House grounds. Jet magazine and the Baltimore Sun reported on her firing.

What happened next is hard to figure out with the bits-and-pieces of reporting at the time and what remains archived. Jet reported that Harkins was “cleared” of the charges later that year and was anticipating a new post at the OMB. She showed up as a bold-faced name at a White House party the next year for those who had worked on the ’76 campaign, so maybe that’s what happened.

Nevertheless, what we do know about Harkins is she made a small mark in Washington. She got her name in the Washington Post, twice! (To my dismay, I couldn’t find a photograph of Viola Harkins and don’t know if she’s still alive).

Viola Harkins didn’t lead a federal agency or run for Congress, but like thousands of others, she completed the daily work of the presidency, answering phone calls and reading constituent mail, keeping things organized.

This is work, easily forgotten, that should be remembered.



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Heath Brown

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits