African American Transportation History: Rodney E. Slater, U.S. Secretary of Transportation

In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Rodney E. Slater as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This appointment made Slater the first African American to serve in that role. He remained FHWA administrator until 1997, when Clinton appointed him to serve as U.S. secretary of transportation. Slater was only the second African American to hold that position; the first to do so had been William T. Coleman Jr., who was U.S. transportation secretary under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977.

Slater started out life in Arkansas. He was born in the town of Marianna in the eastern part of that state on February 23, 1955. Slater graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1977. He went on to earn his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1980.

Slater then became the assistant attorney general for the litigation division of the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office. He worked in that division until 1983, and subsequently served in such roles as then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s executive assistant for economic and community programs and also special assistant for community and minority affairs.

In 1987, Clinton named Slater to the Arkansas Highway Commission. Slater became the first African American on this commission, and he was ultimately selected to be its chairperson. 

In March 1993 — a couple of months after being sworn in for his first term as president — Clinton publicly announced his plans to select Slater as FHWA administrator. Clinton said, “Rodney Slater has been one of my most trusted advisers and played a major role in getting me to this position.”

When nominating Slater for the top job in the U.S. Department of Transportation a few years later, Clinton highlighted his fellow Arkansan’s transportation achievements up to that time. Clinton said, “First as the chair of the State highway commission in our home State and then as Federal Highway Administrator, Rodney Slater has managed large programs with skill and high standards. He has rebuilt and expanded our Nation’s highways and linked isolated communities to jobs and opportunities. He has built bridges both of steel and of good will to bring people closer together.”

Clinton added, “He is the right person to help us meet the many transportation needs and challenges we face as we enter the 21st century . . . I can say that he was recommended by more people from more places in more ways for this job than any person for any position I have ever seen.”

As U.S. transportation secretary, Slater helped to secure bipartisan support for both the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which focused on funding for surface transportation programs; and the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which was centered on improvements to airline safety. Slater served as U.S. transportation secretary until the end of Clinton’s second term as president in 2001.

Slater has since worked in the private sector in such capacities as a director of Kansas City Southern, a transportation holding company with a major rail network in the United States and Mexico; and a partner in the transportation-oriented group of the international law firm now known as Squire Patton Boggs.

Over the years, Slater has received various honors for what he has accomplished. These accolades have included an honorary doctorate from Howard University; the Trailblazer Award from Alpha Kappa Kappa Sorority; the Lamplighter Award for Public Service from the Black Leadership Forum; and the Albert Schweitzer Leadership Award from the Hugh O’Brian Leadership Foundation. In 1998, Ebony magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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