Zandra Flemister blazed a tough trail in the Secret Service. Now she's getting credit
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A Secret Service trailblazer has died. Zandra Flemister was the first Black woman to serve as a Secret Service special agent. She did that in the 1970s. She left the service after just four years because of the way that colleagues treated her. But NPR's Rachel Treisman reports she still opened a door.
RACHEL TREISMAN, BYLINE: Flemister grew up in a military family and believed she was destined for government service. About a year out of college, she met a Secret Service recruiter at a job fair who encouraged her to apply for a special agent position, and she got it. Flemister's husband John Collinge says she loaded up her AMC Hornet and drove down from Connecticut to Washington in the summer of 1974.
JOHN COLLINGE: That was the point at which she discovered that she was a racial pioneer. Nobody had said anything to her about it at the time that they recruited her.
TREISMAN: Flemister worked protective details for figures like first daughters Susan Ford and Amy Carter and former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. But she was mostly assigned to counterfeit and Treasury fraud work, duties that she feared wouldn't advance her career. Retired Secret Service Assistant Director Renee Triplett didn't know Flemister personally, but she does know how that system works.
RENEE TRIPLETT: If your resume doesn't reflect the level of responsibility of a supervisor or management or leader, then you can't be competitive for the next level.
TREISMAN: Flemister would later describe her experience as lacking in professional development but full of tokenization and racial hostility. A supervisor told her she'd have to change her Afro hairstyle in order to get better assignments. A colleague taped a picture of a gorilla over her photo ID.
COLLINGE: She said, I knew within a year or so that my career would be 20 years, and I would be a shriveled-up, bitter husk, and I did not want that.
TREISMAN: Flemister left the Secret Service in 1978, taking a pay cut and a new job at the State Department. She spent the next three decades in the Foreign Service, traveling the world and rising through the ranks.
COLLINGE: She had a reputation at State for being absolutely unflappable in a crisis.
TREISMAN: Alzheimer's disease forced Flemister to retire in 2011, and she died last week at the age of 71.
TRIPLETT: This is the career path she wanted when, even in America, it didn't seem possible for a Black person to excel in the manner that she did.
TREISMAN: Triplett says there are more women and people of color in Secret Service leadership now than when she arrived in the 1980s. And Collinge says he's heard from many Black women in the Secret Service who have been moved by Flemister's story and will now help keep it alive.
Rachel Treisman, NPR News.
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