Meet Judy Smith, The First Black Woman To Lead A White House Press Briefing

When Joe Biden takes office in the coming days, he’s bringing an all-women communications team, several of whom are women of color, with him. 

Though Biden has the first all-women White House communication team, his administration won’t be the first time a Black woman takes the podium. In 1991, Judy Smith served as the deputy press secretary under George H.W. Bush, becoming the first Black woman to lead a White House press briefing in the nation’s history. 

“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,” Smith told Yahoo News last month in an interview. “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,” she added.

Smith went on to become a leading communications expert. Her work inspired Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV drama Scandal, after handling some high profile cases. 

At the time of her historic feat behind the White House press podium, there wasn’t a lot of coverage. White House communications historian and author Martha Joynt Kumar suggests Smith’s work didn’t get covered because White House briefings weren’t televised until Bill Clinton became president. Though former colleagues, including Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater who hired Smith said “The fact that she was Black...didn’t have any effect at all,” Smith clarified her experience, stating, “Being a Black woman [there] is never a time where you’re not a Black woman. Right?” “We should be very, very clear about that,” she added. 

Smith began her career as a little girl growing up in the nation’s capital, seeing the White House on drives with her father who told her, “Maybe one day you can go in there.” That, she said, was the “little seed” that grew into a career breaking barriers as American University’s Washington College of Law’s law review’s first Black woman executive editor. She had a job at a law firm, but got hired on the spot for Judge Lawrence Walsh who was the independent counsel leading the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair. Her trademark honest critique of the judge’s communications’ team over a meal with a friend landed her the job. She went on to take roles in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia before getting recognized by Fitzwater and others around D.C. 

Several Black men including pioneer Andrew Hatcher who was deputy press secretary during John F. Kennedy’s presidency has taken the White House podium. Arthur Jones and Bill Burton served in the same role under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively. 

However, no other Black woman since Judy Smith has done so, until now. Karine Jean-Pierre is serving as deputy press secretary after 28 years with a Black woman in the number two role of the White House’s communication team.

Smith says she’s “over the moon” about Jean-Pierre’s position. “I hope that she gets to do something that I was unable to do as that progresses, that she gets to step into those shoes as… a press secretary to the president.” 

“I am forever grateful for the opportunity, but truly what my hope is, that it somehow inspires and it motivates other women to know that you can achieve your dreams, that all that is possible,” she remarked.

“It starts right here. Right? That ride in the taxi cab. It starts right here.” 

Photos: Getty Images 

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