In honor of the International Labor Organization’s 100th anniversary, we are highlighting the legacy of J. Ernest Wilkins Sr. (1894-1959), a renowned diplomat and public servant who served as the first African-American Assistant Secretary of Labor. Although Wilkins was a Department of Labor official, he worked closely with the Department of State and played an important role in international labor diplomacy, laying the foundation for the work that we do today in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of International Labor Affairs.
J. Ernest Wilkins Sr. was born in 1894, to a working class family in the town of Farmington, Missouri. After experiencing racial discrimination as a soldier in the First World War, Wilkins decided to pursue a career in law and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School at age 20. Following a thirty-five-year legal career in Chicago, Wilkins caught the eye of former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1954 named him Assistant Secretary for International Labor Affairs at the Department of Labor with unanimous approval from the Senate Labor Committee.
Wilkins made history in his first year as Assistant Secretary by becoming the first African American to participate in a Cabinet meeting at the White House. He was also the first African American selected to head a U.S. delegation to any multilateral meeting, leading the delegation to the 1954 International Labor Conference (ILC) in Geneva shortly after his appointment. Wilkins also served as the senior United States representative at several International Labor Organization (ILO) Governing Body meetings.
At the 1954 ILC, Wilkins faced off against the Soviet Union, which had rejoined the ILO after leaving in 1937 and was then trying to gain a seat on the Selection Committee. The New York Times praised Wilkins’ “modesty and restraint” in defeating the Soviet action, saying that he “won more praise for United States tactics than has been heard for a long time in international circles.”
In 1956, Wilkins publicly supported a new ILO convention to eliminate forced labor. He also backed the creation of an ILO regional office in Africa. Through his tireless efforts, the Forced Labor Convention became a reality when Convention 105 was signed at the 1957 ILC. Upon hearing a Soviet delegate attack the U.S. for its ongoing segregation, one American representative urged the Assistant Secretary to object. Wilkins allegedly retorted, “He’s telling the truth, isn’t he?” Wilkins had earlier spoken out in favor of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education for ending racial desegregation in public schools.
Wilkins resigned in 1958 but continued to serve the public as the first African American on the United States Civil Rights Commission. During his tenure, Wilkins fought to hire more African-American staff and took the lead investigating and reporting illegal voter suppression tactics in Alabama. Wilkins remained an active voice on the Commission until suffering a fatal stroke in 1959.
Along with his wife Lucille, a teacher in the Chicago public school system who held a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Wilkins raised three sons: J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., a prolific mathematician and nuclear scientist; John Robinson Wilkins, who served President Kennedy as general counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development; and Julian B. Wilkins, who practiced general and corporate law.
As we celebrate the ILO’s centenary, we remember the outstanding legacy of J. Ernest Wilkins Sr.
About the Author: Aden Halpern is an Intern in the Office of International Labor Affairs of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.