Judy Smith, The Real-Life Olivia Pope, Became The First Black Woman To Lead A White House Press Briefing
Smith didn't realize the impact of her own historic achievement at the time.
February 03, 2021 at 7:50 pm
Long before the Biden-Harris team made history, featuring an all-women White House communications staff, there was Judy Smith, who became the first Black woman to lead a White House press briefing, in 1991. Smith, who served as deputy press secretary for former President George H.W. Bush, blazed a trail for other Black staffers in the White House, Because Of Them We Can reported.
In the 1990s, however, Smith's historic achievement was largely unnoticed.
"The press secretary and the deputies were not well known until they went on camera in January 1995 when the briefing was televised,” Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, told Yahoo News. “Bush was not somebody who spent a lot of time on publicity and I don’t think his staff did either. His cabinet secretaries were very visible, but less so, was his White House staff.”
Marlin Fitzwater, the Bush press secretary who hired Smith, said the former president didn't pay attention to the woman's race.
“She came from a different culture than me. I’m a farm boy from Kansas and she was the city girl from Washington in addition to being a Black woman. I had a couple of deputy press secretaries who were women so that really wasn't new,” Fitzwater said. “The fact that she was Black didn’t have any effect at all.”
Smith also didn't realize the impact of her own historic achievement at the time.
“I didn’t think about it at the time. What I thought about at the time was that going to work in the White House was just such an incredible opportunity. It was a dream come true,” she said. “I didn’t understand the significance of what that was, getting up briefing at that moment, seeing a Black woman behind the podium, speaking on behalf of the president to the American public.”
Still, the Washington, D.C., native was very well aware of the contrast between herself and most of the White House staff.
“Being a Black woman there is never a time where you’re not a Black woman. Right?” she said. “We should be very, very clear about that. Coming into the White House, I was very much aware that I was coming into an institution, like so many others, where there was a lack of diversity. There’s no doubt about that. I am always aware of that in any situation and every single day of my life.”
A graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, recalled an instance where she faced discrimination outside the White House.
“When I was traveling with the president there were a couple of times I forgot my White House badge and I was stopped because they didn't believe I was with the president’s traveling party,” she said.
Although she remains mostly unrecognized to this day, the former press secretary inspired the hit television show, Scandal, with actress Kerry Washington portraying Smith as crisis manager “Olivia Pope.” In an interview with People, the trailblazer said she was accurately depicted in the show, with the characters talking as fast as she does and showing off her love for the color yellow.
Smith applauds President Joe Biden's effort to bring more diversity to the White House.
"I'm a big believer that you get the best results when you have a diverse team, different perspectives, and viewpoints," she said. "It's helpful to have people who don't think exactly the way you do and women have always been very strong in [the] communications field. And really, this is something that could have taken place earlier. It's not as if there's been a shortage of women in communications."
After her tenure in the White House, she formed Smith and Company, which represents Fortune 500 companies and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.
Other Black staffers who have held positions in the White House include Andrew Hatcher, Arthur Jones and Bill Burton. While Hatcher served as associate press secretary during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, Jones was a deputy press secretary for former President Bill Clinton. Burton worked for former President Barack Obama.