Brimmer: Riding the Trends From Bayou to B-School

Exactly 30 years ago, on July 16 or 18--he doesn't remember which--Andrew F. Brimmer departed Newellton, La., a small town 20 miles west of the Mississippi River, and headed north to Chicago, then west by train to Seattle, Washington. What is significant about that day for Brimmer now is not that he was a boy of 17 starting out in the world, but that thousands of other southerners were also heading north, where the country's economy was expanding with the war effort. That is the way Brimmer thinks--not in terms of the motivation of individuals, but in terms of economic trends.

Now Brimmer is regarded as one of the top economists in the nation. The first black man on the Federal Reserve Board and, as of this week, the first on the Du Pont board of directors, Brimmer comes back to Harvard this month--17 years after he received his Ph.D at the Business School--to assume the post of Carroll Ford Visiting Professor of Business Administration.

In his office last Friday, Brimmer relaxed in speaking of his own way up, but his analysis suggested that his actions were the inevitable results of the economic pressures of his times.

"I was part of the same outward-bound stream of people--literally thousands of them--that had migrated out of the area, since World War I, although interrupted by the depression, of course," Brimmer explained. "It was Steinbeck's dust bowl of 'The Grapes of Wrath'--Oklahoma, Arkansas, northern Louisiana--there were very few opportunities."

Newellton was a town of 800 people in the old and rural, northeastern part of Louisiana. Yet even as it was easy to preceive his birth-place as a Southern hamlet undisturbed by the the 20th century, Brimmer recognized throughout his recollections a higher, economic order that permeated even the occupations of his boyhood.

During the school year, Brimmer worked as an assistant to a veterinarian, and as "the South shifted from an agriculture of row crops to soybeans, grains and cattle," his superior's clientele changed from horses to cattle and hogs.

"This was the old cotton country petering out. I remember numerous occasions where we'd go out to the farmers during the day, and he'd have to inoculate 30, 40 or 50 animals at a time," Brimmer said.

In recalling the 1940s, he continually refused to acknowledge any personal distinction from the other thousands in the movements of which he views himself as a part. Even when asked about racial bigotry, Brimmer declines to relate incidents that might have set him apart.

"My own life has been, obviously, influenced by my environment," he maintains. "When you are faced by an environment of institutionalized discrimination, it isn't necessary to seek individual cases to document that it exists."

It was only after he was swept into the army with everyone else that his life became atypical, Brimmer implies. Upon his discharge in late 1946, the 20-year-old entered the University of Washington and pursued what he thought then would be a career in journalism. He spent two years writing for the school daily while selling ads, doing make-up and reporting stories for The Seattle Dispatch, a weekly newspaper that served the black community.

"I shifted from journalism to economics, because I found economics more interesting, and I concluded down the road that if I wanted to be a journalist, I would be a better one with some technical understanding," Brimmer said.

Brimmer prospered at Washington. That he enjoyed a professor as an exclusive mentor, he says, was due to the fact that there was a small student-faculty ratio in the department. But Brimmer admits that he was already grading others' papers as an undergraduate and that he was a reader for a professor.

Brimmer won a Fulbright Fellowship to India in 1951, deferring admission to either Berkeley or Harvard graduate school. But on Brimmer's voyage home, Harvard cabled him to assure him of scholarship aid, "so I came to Harvard."

Since the mid-50s, Brimmer has distinguished himself in the field of international finance and has also published frequent papers on black economic development. Brimmer is scheduled to teach a money and banking course at the Business School later this year. He says he will probably teach a College course in 1975-76 but is not certain whether he will appear this year among the cavalcade of famous professors in Economics 10.