African-American Transportation History: William T. Coleman, Jr., U.S. Secretary of Transportation

In 1975, William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. was appointed by President Gerald Ford to serve as the fourth U.S. secretary of transportation. He was the first African-American to serve in that role and second only to Robert C. Weaver, who was secretary of housing and urban development under President Lyndon B. Johnson, as the first African-American to be named to any cabinet post.

Coleman was born in Philadelphia in 1920. He graduated summa cum laude with a double major in economics and political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Coleman graduated first in his class from the Harvard School of Law.

Coleman subsequently pursued a noteworthy career as an attorney. He also established a longtime and equally formidable record of public service. Coleman was the co-author of the legal brief for the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing separate public schools for African-American and white students were unconstitutional. Coleman also served as president of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. At the time of his appointment as transportation secretary, he was the senior partner at a law firm.

Coleman was sworn in by Thurgood Marshall, associate justice of the Supreme Court and that court’s first African-American justice, at a ceremony in the White House. “When we were looking for a Secretary of Transportation, Bill Coleman’s name was right at the top of the list,” said Ford during the ceremony. “Mr. Secretary, I’m very pleased to welcome you into one of the toughest Cabinet posts in our Government and to wish you success as we work together.”

During his time at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Coleman issued the agency’s first-ever official statement of national transportation policy; and established the Materials Transportation Bureau to oversee programs for pipeline safety and the shipment of hazardous materials. Coleman also played an instrumental role in the development of Interstate 66, a major highway serving the Washington, D.C., region. Just before stepping down as transportation secretary at the end of Ford’s term in 1977, Coleman approved federal aid for the section of I-66 between the Capital Beltway and the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

In the years following his tenure as transportation secretary, Coleman continued to practice law and served on the President’s Commission on Airline and Airport Security. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1995. Coleman died in 2017 at the age of 96.

For more information on William Thaddeus Coleman Jr., please check out and his 31 March 2017 New York Times obituary at

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