J. Ernest Wilkins Sr.
|Died||January 19, 1959 (aged 64)|
|Alma mater||University of Illinois; University of Chicago|
|Known for||Labor leader, Undersecretary of Labor, Civil Rights|
|Children||3 sons, including J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.|
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Sr. (February 1, 1894 - January 19, 1959) was a U.S. lawyer, labor leader, undersecretary in the Eisenhower administration and both the first African-American to be appointed to a sub-cabinet position in the United States Government and the first to attend White House cabinet-level meetings.
After a public falling-out with the president and his administration, Wilkins was dismissed from his post by Eisenhower, and then went on to join the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1958.
Wilkins is the son of a Missouri Baptist preacher. He studied mathematics at the University of Illinois and then attended the University of Chicago Law School in the 1920s, becoming one of its first-ever black graduates. He graduated with a PhD at age 20, a member of its Phi Beta Kappa Society and then practiced law locally for several years.
In 1954, Wilkins was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as Undersecretary of Labor for International Labor Affairs (UL-ILA), thus becoming the first Black to attend White House cabinet level meetings in the absence of his superior, Labor Secretary James Mitchell. Wilkins had previously served the Eisenhower administration as acting chairman of the President's Committee on Government Contracts at the request of Val Washington.
During his tenure with the administration he was a member of Equality Committee, working with Frederic Murrow, Val Washington, Joseph Douglas, James Nabrit Jr. and Samuel Pierce. Still earlier he had been a member of Eisenhower's President's Committee on Governmental Employment Policy (PCGEP) board when he was with the Labor Department.
After a public falling-out with the administration, Wilkins was dismissed from his post by President Eisenhower, and then went on to join the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1958. During a later election campaign, John F. Kennedy was quick to note that when Wilkins had been fired he had been replaced by the son of one of the Republican Party's outspoken anti-civil rights advocates.
While investigating charges that Black voting rights had been violated, his work with the six-member Civil Rights Commission was hampered in Montgomery, Alabama when he was refused accommodation at the hotel where the other commission members were staying. He subsequently found a room for himself at Maxwell Air Force Base. When the commission tried to subpoena county voting records, they discovered that then-Circuit Judge George Wallace had seized the records, and was threatening to jail any commission member who would interfere in his jurisdiction.
In 1953, Wilkins became the first African American to serve on the nine-member Judicial Council of the Methodist Church, when he was elected its secretary. The body is Methodism's nominal and administrative head.
From 1954 to 1957, Wilkins served as U.S. representative on the governing body of the International Labour Organization. In 1959, Wilkins also became the first African-American president of the Judicial Council of the Methodist Church.
Wilkins married Lucille Robinson (b. 1899 (?) - d. November 1964, Brooklyn, N.Y., aged 65), who taught school in Chicago, was secretary to the women's division of the Methodist Church, and who also practiced law with her husband for 33 years.
Together they raised three sons: J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., who achieved fame as a mathematician and nuclear scientist; John Robinson Wilkins, who attended University of Wisconsin at the age of 14, Harvard Law School at 19, was elected to the Harvard Law Review, and went on to serve President Kennedy as general council for the Agency for International Development (AID); and Julian B. Wilkins, who practiced general and corporate law.
Wilkins is the grandfather of two notable attorneys: David B. Wilkins, a professor at the Harvard Law School, and Timothy A. Wilkins, a partner with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In 2010 Wilkins' granddaughter, Carolyn Marie Wilkins, a Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, wrote of her grandfather and her family more generally in her biography Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success.