March commemorates Women’s History Month – a month highlighting women’s endless contributions to events throughout history, society and across cultures. Throughout Women's History Month, The Organization of Black Women In Law Enforcement, Inc. will be acknowledging an outstanding Woman weekly.
It took the Secret Service nearly a century to hire its first Black special agent, Charles L. Gittens, in 1956. Another 15 years would pass before the organization brought on its first female agents, and still a few more years went by before Zandra I. Flemister became the first Black woman in that role in 1974.
Ms. Flemister, who died Feb. 21 at 71, was unaware of the milestone until she was sworn in. She was “a trailblazer who dedicated her life to service and inspired a future generation of agents,” Kimberly Cheatle, the agency’s director, said in a statement after Ms. Flemister’s death.
But from her first days on the job, Ms. Flemister endured acts of racism and discrimination that would ultimately drive her from the agency she had so eagerly hoped to serve. She was often relegated to undesirable roles within the agency, which investigates forgery, counterfeiting and other financial crimes in addition to protecting the president, vice president and other dignitaries and their families.
Ms. Flemister was on duty at the Washington field office when a fellow agent once gestured to her and remarked, “Whose prisoner is she?” — a comment, she later recalled, that left her “embarrassed and humiliated.”
A superior told her that if she wished to be assigned to more prestigious, higher-paying security details, she would need to abandon her Afro-style haircut. Ms. Flemister complied. But when she was placed on protective duty, she felt that she was there “solely for exhibition,” she recounted, as the “‘show’ African-American female agent that the Secret Service rotated around to different details to make it appear racially diverse.”
Once, she told a friend, a colleague taped an image of a gorilla over Ms. Flemister’s photograph on her official ID card. During visits to the United States by the presidents of Senegal and Grenada, Ms. Flemister said she heard White special agents refer to both leaders using the n-word. Suspects in criminal investigations were openly described with the same epithet. When Ms. Flemister reported such incidents to a superior, no action, to her knowledge, she said, was taken.
“I remained in the Secret Service because I wanted to be a trailblazer for other African-American women,” she wrote years later in an affidavit filed in support of a class-action lawsuit, initiated in 2000, that alleged rampant racial discrimination within the Secret Service.
“With my requests for transfers to career-enhancing squads consistently denied, my credibility and competency constantly questioned, and the common use of racial epithets in my presence,” she wrote, “I saw the handwriting on the wall: Because of my race I would never be allowed to have a successful career in the Secret Service.”
Ms. Flemister left the agency in 1978, taking a pay cut to join the Foreign Service. During more than three decades with the State Department, she served on postings around the world, including as consul general in Islamabad, Pakistan, and in Washington as the senior State Department representative at the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center.
In her early 50s, Ms. Flemister began to experience memory loss that was the first sign of early-onset dementia. She retired from the State Department in 2011 and had descended so deeply into her illness that she was unable to follow the developments in the discrimination lawsuit brought against the Secret Service.
The lead plaintiff in the case was Ray Moore, an African American special agent who served in the Secret Service for 32 years, protecting eight U.S. presidents and former presidents. He was denied promotions more than 200 times, he said, despite stellar reviews. More than 100 Black special agents and former special agents eventually joined the lawsuit. They alleged that African Americans regularly lost out on promotions to White colleagues with less experience or lower performance evaluations. Racist jokes and racist slurs, they said, were openly told and used.
Ms. Flemister was not a plaintiff in the case, which addressed conduct by the Secret Service in the 1990s and 2000s. She offered her affidavit to demonstrate the long history of racism within the agency, according to her husband, John Collinge.
In 2017, the Secret Service agreed to a $24 million settlement. The agency admitted to no wrongdoing or institutional bias but pledged to overhaul its promotion process.
“The strength of the Secret Service is predicated on the diversity and experience of our workforce,” Cheatle, the current director, said in the statement about Ms. Flemister.
In other Secret Service duties, Ms. Flemister did what she described as a “disproportionate” amount of undercover work because of her race. She experienced sexual harassment as well as racial discrimination, reporting that during overnight assignments male agents would knock on her hotel door to proposition her.
“As a female in the ’70s, it was tough to be in federal law enforcement to begin with,” said Cheryl Tyler, who joined the Secret Service in 1984 and protected George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, becoming the first African American woman permanently assigned to a presidential security detail. “Being a Black female … in an elite organization, you had to have some tough skin.”
The retention rate among African American women in the Secret Service was so low that by 2001, The Washington Post re[ported, not a single Black female special agent had remained in the service long enough to reach retirement.
By Emily Langer
Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond.