Our Black History: The UW's Andrew Brimmer was a trailblazer and an 'economic genius'
While researching connections between African Americans and the Sudan, University of Washington history professor came upon a name from the school's past: Andrew Brimmer.
Born in Louisiana in the 1920s, Brimmer made his way to the Pacific Northwest when he joined the U.S. Navy during World War II and came to Bremerton, Washington. From there, he earned two degrees from the UW, where he studied economics before moving on to Harvard Business School.
Then, in 1966, Brimmer's phone rang.
“I got a call in my office from [William] Marvin Watson who’s [President Lyndon B.] Johnson’s appointment secretary who said ‘the boss wants to see you,' Brimmer recalled, according to The History Makers. "And I went over to the White House."
Johnson was about to appoint him to the board of governors for the Federal Reserve, a powerful position that helps set the country’s economic policy. He would become the first African American in that role.
Brimmer’s trailblazing career in public service — and a connection to the Sudan — is something that’s fascinated Tounsel, who heads the African Studies Program at UW.
"As an African American, I asked myself, 'Well, you know, whose shoulders am I standing on? You know, whose kind of genealogy am I a part of?' I can't be the only African American ever, right, who's been interested in modern Sudan and has traveled to the Sudan? And so that really kind of sparked my interest," Tounsel said.
"Historically, the Sudan has always had a really important role in African American pride.," Tounsel continued.
"There was an ancient civilization just south of Egypt called Kush. And people like historian Michael Gomez have talked about the fact that Kush represented this example, of a kind of, pre-transatlantic slave trade example of African glory. The whole 'We come from kings and queens' narrative. But it's one thing for ancient Sudan to have such a prominent place in kind of African American thought, but what about modern Sudan?"
Sudan won its independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956. Brimmer was subsequently invited to join a U.S. delegation to travel to the Sudan to explore the idea of building the country's first post-colonial national bank.
As part of his research, Tounsel got a chance to page through Brimmer's diary, in which Brimmer describes how many of the Sudanese were taken aback when they met him. Here was someone who looked like them, Brimmer wrote, but came from such a different place.
"You've got this, you know, Black man from Jim Crow, Louisiana, engaging with these, you know, formerly colonized, but now newly independent Sudanese citizens," Tounsel said. "And so I just think that those moments in the archive where he's talking about that are just so rich.”
Calling Brimmer a "kind of economic genius," Tounsel described him as a civil servant who entered into and navigated corridors of power.
"Throughout his career, he was really keen on exploring Black economics, in particular," said Tounsel, reflecting on Brimmer's contributions as a member of the Reserve's Board of Governors.
"He was not what, you know, Cornel West has called, kind of, 'a Black face in a high place'...who is good for the optics, but is not really thinking about how one can use their power and influence in that role to help those disenfranchised people who look like them."
Brimmer lived to be 86 years old before he died in 2012.
Tounsel profiled Brimmer in his latest book, Bounds of Blackness: African Americans, Sudan, and the Politics of Solidarity, which is due out later this year.