Wow, March, Women’s History Month slipped up on me before I had any idea of what history-making woman I’d want to write about. But NPR (my favorite radio station) answered my question when they reported about the recently deceased Zandra Flemister, an individual I’d never heard of. I suspect that I’m not the only one.
Now once I dug into it, her story provided me with an opportunity to staddle two identities – race and gender – as well as two history month celebrations – African American (February) and National Women’s (March).
As I pored through Flemister’s history, I was struck by several parallels between her professional experiences – blatant acts of racism, discrimination and tokenism among them – and those experienced by scores of other pioneering African Americans who were hired in the 60s and 70s, some as window- dressing tokens. (Google “The Spook Who Sat by The Door” to get my drift).
Flemister was born in Frankfurt, Germany to a U.S. Army sergeant and government microfilm technician, and spent the first four or five years of her life in Germany and France before her parents separated and she moved with her mom to Connecticut. She went to Northeastern University on a work-study program, graduating with a degree in political science.
She was the first Black woman to serve as a special agent in the U.S. Secret Service, then spent over three decades as a foreign service officer, rising to the upper ranks of senior foreign service. She did so while juggling family responsibilities, including raising her son who was diagnosed with autism as a child.
Flemister met a Secret Service recruiter at a job fair who told her she was overqualified for the uniformed service but encouraged her to apply to be a special agent instead. She got the job in 1974. She was mostly assigned to undercover, counterfeit and treasury fraud work, though did work some notable protective details — including for Bob Dole’s wife Elizabeth while he was running for vice president and first daughters Susan Ford and Amy Carter. But she struggled to be taken seriously by her colleagues and supervisors and felt she would not be able to advance at the agency in the long term.
Unfortunately, Flemister experienced discrimination throughout her time at the agency, including, she reported, being relegated to mostly undercover and lower-paying duties, getting propositioned by male colleagues on overnight assignments, being denied recognition for exemplary work and facing a constant barrage of racist comments and slurs. However, she stayed with the agency “because she wanted to be a “trailblazer for other African-American women,” she wrote in an affidavit filed in support of a 2000 class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination within the Secret Service (settled for $24 million).
Later she left Secret Service, ultimately taking a new job — and a pay cut — at the State Department in 1978, launching a career in the foreign service. Her three decades there included running interagency visa screening programs in Pakistan and South Korea and establishing a multinational anti-visa fraud working group in London.
At one point, she reported, a superior told her that she would have to get rid of her Afro-style hairdo in order to get assigned to more prestigious and lucrative security details. Flemister did, but later wrote that she felt like “the show African American female agent that the Secret Service rotated around to different details to make it appear racially diverse.”
Further, a colleague taped an image of a gorilla over her photo on her ID card, while another gestured to her in the office and asked “Whose prisoner is she?” She added that on presidential visits to Senegal and Grenada, she heard white agents refer to the leaders of those countries using the n-word, and wasn’t aware of any action being taken after she reported it.
“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, I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Flemister wrote, according to a copy of the affidavit shared with NPR. “Because of my race I would never be allowed to have a successful career in the Secret Service.”
According to NPR, one of the agents who followed — albeit unknowingly — in Flemister’s footsteps was former Secret Service Assistant Director Renee Triplett who arrived at the Washington Field Office in 1989 and retired in 2016 as the first Black woman to serve in that executive-level position.
“To me, this was the first recognition of who the first Black female [special agent] was,” Triplett says. “I thought, ‘Wow,’ because it was in the 1970s, I knew the history of when, generally, the first women were hired within the agency, but I never had an understanding of when the first Black female had ever been hired.” It was only after Flemister’s death that Triplett learned how difficult her time at the agency had been, a story that she called “heartbreaking” to read.
In the end, I salute and celebrate Zandra Flemister and other trailblazers like her who paved the way for scores of others like them.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning speaker, writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Waynesboro News Virginian, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.