By: Sam Curtis
Can you see as far ahead as I can see back, was a question often posed by Clarence Mathews to his children when they attempted to challenge his wisdom. Born on June 6, 1889, Clarence Mathews was a civic leader in Mobile, Alabama’s African American community. A chauffeur with a fourth grade education, Mathews’ activisms lead him to mortgage his home to secure a Boy Scout charter for 41 African American boys in Mobile.
Mr. Mathews was a role model for both males and females and his impact was center staged at the Marriott Hotel on May 31, 2008 during a historic meeting of the Democratic Party national committee rules and bylaws meeting. Chairing that committee was James Roosevelt, Jr. the grandson of former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Mathews’ Goddaughter, Alexis Herman.
Clarence Mathews thought it necessary to do something extraordinary to secure the Boy Scout charter. In 1931, America was in the throws of the great depression. Mathews used the mortgaged funds to cover travel expenses for the 41 boys trip to Washington, D.C. in their endeavor to secure the first African American Boy Scout charter for Mobile.
During their trip, the boys and Mathews got the opportunity to meet then President Herbert Hoover with the assistance of his good friend U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest. A Chicagoan, DePriest, was the first African American elected to Congress from Illinois. That election took place some after 27 years after the defeat of John White an African American from North Carolina.
Ironically, Franklin Delano Roosevelt replaced the one term Hoover who was clueless as to how to break America from the grips of the Depression as President. Born in 1947, Alexis Herman was not a life in being at this point. It is said that Mr. Mathews who was the best friend of Alex Herman, Alexisâ€™ father saw something special in his Goddaughter.
Special she is indeed! Herman served as the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration. She was also the first African American to serve in that capacity.
Although the wise Mathews could see back, I’m sure he had no idea that when he stepped foot on the White House grounds that day in 1931 that his Goddaughter would work inside as assistant to the U.S. President and director of the White House Public Liaison Office some 62 years later. Nor would he have predicted that she would co-chair an important meeting to seat voters in two states during an historic campaign producing the Democratic nomination and perhaps the first African American President of the United States.
Although he could not have predicted it, Mathews who would have celebrated his 120th birthday today, along with Oscar DePriest and other unsung heroes paved the way for Herman and Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama (a Chicagoan) to be where they are today. We all stand on the shoulders of unsung heroes.