African-American Women Blazing Trails on Corporate Boards

by Julie Graber | on 25 Feb 2020

I recently ran across a 1986 listing of the board members for public companies operating in Central Ohio (my hometown). Curious as to what I would find in terms of gender diversity, I started working through the names, confirming gender for each person listed.

As the work progressed, I started to notice that a good number of the women were African-American, which frankly surprised me - I would have expected maybe one or two women of color if any (remember - 1986). Further research led me to an amazing list of African-American women who were trailblazers for both their race and their gender in the corporate arena, including the very first woman to serve as a corporate board member.

That woman was Patricia Roberts Harris, who according to multiple sources, became the very first woman to serve on a public company board in 1971 when she was appointed to the board of IBM. Harris's name may be familiar - she had a long, distinguished career in business, government, and higher ed, serving as a US Ambassador to Luxembourg and as the first African-American woman to serve as a Cabinet secretary (for three departments!), which she did during the Carter administration. Harris served on the boards of IBM, Scott Paper, National Bank of Washington, and Chase Manhattan Bank.

Some of the other women whose bios I found included:

  • Claudine Malone, president of Financial & Management Consulting, who at one point sat on the boards of 11 corporations (besting Vernon Jordan for the number simultaneous board appointments that year). Her boards included: Hasbro, Lowe's Companies, Dell Computer Corp, Science Applications International, Campbell Soup, The Limited, Penn Mutual Life Insurance, and Scott Paper Co. (she also served as a trustee for MIT).
  • Ernesta G. Procope, whose E. G. Bowman Company was the first African-American-owned business to be located on Wall Street (Avon, Chubb, & Columbia Gas).
  • Barbara Scott Preiskel, an attorney who served on the boards of American Stores Co., General Electric, Mass Mutual Life Insurance, Textron, Macy's, Levi's, and the Washington Post Co.
  • Carol L. Hamilton Scott, the first woman elected to the Board of Directors of Wilberforce University and the first African-American woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Banc Ohio National Bank and later, National City Bank. (Banc Ohio/National City).
  • Dr. Sybil C. Mobley, who was Dean of the School of Business and Industry at Florida A&M University (Anheuser Busch, Champion International Corp, Hershey Foods, Premark International, Sears).

Back issues of Ebony, available though Google Books, proved to be a terrific resource for background information and confirmation of board member gender and race. The magazine compiled lists of African-Americans serving on boards every couple of years starting back in the early 1980s through the mid-2000s (1987, 1994, 1997, 2002). (Black Enterprise's annual registry is a great source for more current information.)

The African-American women serving on boards of the largest companies operating in Central Ohio in 1986 included Malone, Mobley, Procope, Scott and Doris A. Evans, MD, a pediatrician in the Cleveland area who served on the board of AmeriTrust (now KeyBank).

Those women, along with Vilma S. Martinez (H), were six of the 21 women directors included in that early list, making women of color 29% of the total. Last count for Central Ohio - women of color were just 20% of the female directors in 2019 and less than 5% of the total board members. National statistics are fairly comparable, providing clear evidence that a strong start hasn't ensured continued growth. There's still plenty of room for improvement.

Tags:  Women on Boards