Phyllis Ann Wallace, A Leader for Equal Opportunity
By Annette LaMond* | S.M., MIT Sloan School of Management | Ph.D., Yale University
In 1975, Phyllis Wallace,1 then age 54, became the first Black woman – and first woman – to receive tenure at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
When Phyllis arrived at MIT in 1972, she rented an apartment in a tall-for-Cambridge building between Central and Harvard Squares. But being a New Yorker who did not drive, she quickly gravitated to one of the Prudential’s apartment towers in Boston, where she could shop for groceries without a car and enjoy the bustle of Boston’s Back Bay. Although she was only a Cambridge resident for a short time, she was based at MIT for the last 20 years of her peripatetic career and loved the Institute, so I would urge Cambridge to claim Phyllis as one of its own.
Born in June 1921 in Maryland, Phyllis was the first child of John and Stevella F. Wallace.2 Six more children followed – Archie, Samuel, Lydia, Margaret, Ophelia, and Frances – and Phyllis undoubtedly acquired some of her motherly ways as a result of her position as the senior sibling in the family. According to the U.S. Census, her father was a railroad laborer (1930) and then an ironworker (1940), and her mother, a housewife; the family lived in a modest rented brick rowhouse. According to Phyllis, the Wallaces were descended from free Blacks.3
Growing up in racially segregated Baltimore, Phyllis attended a high school founded in 1883 as the Colored High and Training School – renamed ten years later in honor of Frederick Douglass who gave a dedication address.4 When Phyllis entered the school, it had a new building with a gymnasium, library and cafeteria, plus a sense of history and expectation. Notable alumni included Thurgood Marshall (Class of 1925), Cab Calloway (Class of 1925), a number of other entertainers, and a succession of civil rights activists and politicians, including Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson (Class of 1909), Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and Kweisi Mfume.
Another exceptional alumna was Nellie A. Buchanan (Class of 1917). After graduation, Ms. Buchanan earned a degree from Morgan State College, and then returned to Frederick Douglass to teach Latin and drama. Greatly admired by her students, including Marshall and Calloway, she was known for requiring them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Latin and assigning summer homework. Indeed, students likely saw her in the summer, for she also taught at Baltimore camps and drama programs.
Phyllis would have known Ms. Buchanan. It’s not hard to imagine that Phyllis would have been a favorite student in both Latin and drama. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Phyllis had worked in puppetry theater for nine weeks during the previous summer – perhaps Ms. Buchanan steered Phyllis to the job?
Phyllis graduated from Frederick Douglass in 1939, first in her class. Despite her academic promise, the University of Maryland was segregated, and not an option. The expected course for the school’s top students was to go to a Black college, the closest being Morgan State. (Marshall and Calloway had gone to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.) Phyllis’s family was large and their income was modest, so how could she go farther than Baltimore’s Morgan State?
To me, it seems likely that Nellie Buchanan guided Phyllis on the path that took her to New York University. Despite segregation, Maryland law provided an escape. Namely, if the African-American student wished to major in a subject that was not offered at Morgan State, but was available at the all-white University of Maryland, Maryland would pay out-of-state tuition at another institution.
Phyllis perused the catalogues of the two colleges, and identified economics as a subject that was taught at the University of Maryland, but not Morgan State. The state accommodated her desire to study economics. Thanks to the State of Maryland,5 Phyllis entered NYU in the fall of 1939. Not only did Phylis major in economics, she deepened her lifelong love of theatre and art in the great city. In 1943, she graduated from NYU as an economics major, Phi Beta Kappa.
The predictable course for Phyllis following college graduation was to return to Baltimore and teach high school. However, one of her NYU professors suggested an alternative – application to the economics doctoral program at Yale University, and so she was off to New Haven. At Yale, Phyllis was not able to serve as a teaching assistant (presumably as a matter of both race and gender); however, she did find opportunities to work as a research assistant and benefited from the support of the University’s Sterling funds and the Rosenwald Foundation, an important supporter of African-American education. She earned a master’s degree in 1944 and her doctorate in 1948 with a thesis on international sugar agreements.
As a new Ph.D., Phyllis’s professional focus was international trade, the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She returned to New York City as a part-time lecturer at City College of New York (a track to tenure not being open) and a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 1953, Phyllis took a teaching position at the historically Black Atlanta University, maintaining a research relationship with NBER.6
In 1957, Phyllis left teaching, pulled by a new opportunity that arose out of the Cold War. With her experience in international economics, she became a specialist in the Soviet economy. Later, in talking about this period of government employment, she was discreet, but with the end of the Cold War, she quietly acknowledged that she had been a C.I.A. economic intelligence analyst, but provided no details. Of note, her entry in the 1962 edition of the National Register of Scientific and Technical Personnel lists proficiency in German, Russian, Spanish, and French. (Again, Ms. Buchanan’s high school Latin course would have provided a foundation for later language studies.)
Then came the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s. As a senior government economist, Phyllis was in the right place at the right time. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the next year7. The EEOC’s mandate: to “ensure equality of opportunity by vigorously enforcing federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment” whether on the basis of religion, race, sex, color, national origin, age, or disability. In 1966, Phyllis became the new commission’s Chief of Technical Studies. In this job, Phyllis reached out to senior economists and also to young scholars who would go on to distinguished academic careers,8 including one future winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Through Phyllis, economists had pathbreaking access to data sets that, when analyzed, advanced economic understanding of employment discrimination. At the same time, she engaged scholars who analyzed its sociological, psychological and legal dimensions.
The most consequential case of Phyllis’s EEOC years involved the employment practices of the 23 subsidiary operating companies of AT&T, with nearly 800,000 workers, then the largest private employer in the United States. AT&T provided enough paper to fill a warehouse. Analysis of the data resulted in a landmark settlement in January 1973 that provided for payment of back wages and benefits. More importantly, it led to a revamping of employment practices to comply with federal law in one of the highest visibility corporations in the country. As much as the founding of the commission, the case established a new perspective on equal employment opportunity, particularly for women.
In 1969, after setting the AT&T case in motion, Phyllis returned to New York to pursue her own deepening research interest in labor markets as a vice president at Metropolitan Applied Research Center, a nonprofit organization founded by Kenneth Clark9 to focus on the problems of U.S. cities. At MARC, Phyllis took on the issues of employment discrimination experienced by urban youth, especially young Black women.
The Sloan School saw a star in Phyllis and invited her to MIT as a visiting professor in 1972. I arrived as a masters student at Sloan in September 1973 – fresh from two years at Yale with an M.Phil. in economics and a determination to proceed in a more applied direction. I saw a posting for a research position with a visiting professor and dropped off a letter and résumé. When I arrived for an interview, Phyllis expressed excitement that I had been an economics student at Yale. I got the job on the spot, maybe as I walked in the door, even though she had already hired another Sloan student (who had a masters degree from the City College of New York, another institution dear to Phyllis). Somehow, Phyllis was able to expand her research budget, and both of us joined the team.
The assignment was to prepare for a Sloan School research symposium to assess the scope of research on employment discrimination. My job was to provide summaries of all the submitted papers and report on comments. It was a crash course in the economics, psychology and sociology of discrimination, and great fun. Afterward, Phyllis invited me to be a co-editor of a compilation of the papers and also to write an introductory paper. Phyllis was subtly nudging me to complete my Ph.D. in economics.
In 1975, Phyllis was made a tenured full professor at Sloan and she was given a corner office with a view of Boston across the Charles River, which she loved. (When Phyllis was away, I sometimes worked in her office, so I enjoyed it too.) While at Sloan, Phyllis published a series of books – Pathways to Work: Unemployment Among Black Teenage Females (1974); Equal Opportunity and the AT&T Case (1976); Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination (edited with the author of this paper); Black Women in the Labor Force (1980); Women in the Work Place (1982); MBAs on the Fast Track (1989), as well as an assortment of papers.
Phyllis was the first woman and first African-American president of the Industrial Relations Research Association. While teaching at Sloan, Phyllis was invited to serve on a number of boards – Brookings Institution; State Street Bank; Stop & Shop. She also took great pleasure in serving as one of the two MIT “chairs” on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts board of trustees. (Appointed in 1976, she was the Museum’s first Black board member.) At the MFA, Phyllis immersed herself in learning about a new organization. She began the still ongoing process of reaching out to the community and was instrumental in establishing the Nubian Gallery.
One of the smaller of her boards was that of the Society of Arts and Crafts – an organization that she had come to know as a Newbury Street shopper and art collector. She had a way of connecting people with organizations where they might enjoy being useful; my graphic designer husband was soon serving on the SAC board with Phyllis.
Phyllis received a number of awards, including from the National Economic Association, Brown University, Mount Holyoke College, and Yale, as well as MIT, which established two funds (for Black doctoral students admitted to Sloan and for visiting scholars) in her name.
Along the way, Phyllis mentored many students and new professors, both black and white, men and women.10 More than a few of us viewed her as a mother. The challenge of writing this profile of Phyllis has been not to gush about what a great person she was. I say this, Phyllis loved people, and people loved her.
When Phyllis retired in 1986, MIT held a conference in her honor. She continued to give her time to Sloan, for example, taking on a special assignment from the dean on the issue of sexual harassment. Following her sudden death in January 1993, the Institute had another conference in celebration of her life. Even now, after all these years, in what would be Phyllis’s centennial year, the thought that she is gone can still shock. After a surprising event, I have the impulse to call her and to hash things over. She enjoyed life so much. Though she experienced discrimination, she did not let it touch her soul or diminish her openness to people. I was fortunate to have known her.
Postscript: In retirement, Phyllis was researching her family history. Although she knew that she was descended through a line of free Black families, Phyllis was intrigued to learn that one ancestor had entered the Port of Washington, D.C. as a free Black sea captain before 1810 (if my memory is correct). With Phyllis’s sudden death, that research project was halted.
Is there a genealogist in the Cambridge Historical Society who could help bring Phyllis’s genealogical work to a conclusion? I can imagine Phyllis’s delight. And once again, she would give us a new perspective on our country’s history as we navigate toward to a more just and equitable future.
*A graduate of Wellesley College, Annette LaMond has a S.M. from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University. She is an author, editor, and consultant, whose research has ranged from industry regulation to Cambridge history. She contributed an essay to the Cambridge Historical Society’s centennial book about a fierce controversy between the Cambridge Plant Club and a garden club in Georgia. An avid skater, she wrote a history of the Cambridge Skating Club – the second oldest skating club in the United States. During the non-ice season, she enjoys gardening and is a regular volunteer in the garden at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House.
1. Sources for this profile include: Susan Trausch, “Being a Black Woman Economist Isn’t Easy,” Boston Globe, May 26, 1975; “First Black Trustee: Wallace Joins MFA Board,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1976; “Phyllis A. Wallace, 69 [sic], Pioneered Study of Bias in the Workplace,” Boston Globe, January 13, 1993; “Professor Phyllis A. Wallace Dies,” MIT News, January 13, 1993; Lee A. Daniels, “Phyllis Wallace, 69 [sic], Labor Economist in A.T.&T. Lawsuit,” New York Times, January 13, 1993; “Phyllis Wallace, “Labor Economist,” Baltimore Sun; January 15, 1993; Julianne Malveaux, “Titling Against the Wind: Reflections on the Life and Work of Phyllis Ann Wallace, American Economics Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the 106th Annual Meeting the American Economic Association, May 1994; MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, “Phyllis A. Wallace: A Tribute, compiled by Bob McKersie and Cherie Potts; Yale University Department of Economics, “Phyllis Ann Wallace, ’44 M.A., ’48 Ph.D.,” Women at Yale in Economics, November 19, 2019.
2. Two notes: First, regarding Phyllis’s birth year: In some sources, it is misreported as 1923, but the year in the U.S. Census of 1930 and 1940 is 1921. Second, regarding Phyllis’s given name: In 1930, it is reported as “Phyllis,” and in 1940, as “Annie Rebecca.”
3. In the antebellum period, Baltimore was a prosperous shipping center, a place where free blacks could find jobs requiring manual skills. By 1850, Baltimore was home to the largest free black population of any city in the country, free blacks far outnumbering slaves. Despite the sizable presence of “free” blacks, a level of fear remained – of re-enslavement by kidnappers who fabricated papers and sold their captives in nearby Virginia. Another cause for insecurity came with a doubling of the population of German and Irish immigrants between 1840 and 1860: free blacks began to experience job competition that pushed them from work requiring manual skills into lower-paying jobs, such as servants and waiters. The U.S. Census numbers give context to these trends: In 1850, Baltimore had a population of 169,054, with 25,442 free blacks and 2,946 slaves; in 1860, the corresponding numbers were 212,418, 25,680, and 2,218.
For more, Ralph Clayton’s Slavery, Slaveholding, and the Free Black Population of Antebellum Baltimore, (Heritage Books, 1994) distills data from federal census tracts, tax lists, city directories, newspapers and court papers.
4. The dedication address, given by Douglass a year before his death, is published in George Freeman Bragg, Men of Maryland, pp. 44–46. Frederick Douglass, Address, Sixth Annual Commencement of the Colored High School, June 22, 1894, in the Academy of Music.
Rev. George F. Bragg, D.D. (1863–1940) was Rector of St. James African Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland, and editor of The Church Advocate. His book includes a chapter on black slaves in the state and a longer one on free blacks. Men profiled include Benjamin Banneker, Scipio Beanes, Daniel Coker, and others, including two women. Bragg was an activist and founder with W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP.
5. In 1950, Parren Mitchell, another Frederick Douglass High School graduate sued University of Maryland for admission to its graduate school and won.
6. Although Phyllis developed close friendships with her Atlanta colleagues, she may have found life in the South difficult, particularly as a single woman, with restrictions on the access of blacks to restaurants, service stations, hotels, and parks. Phyllis never complained of discrimination, but according to one of her MIT students, she did write a letter of protest to the American Economic Association about its choice of an annual meeting site where public accommodations to black were restricted.
7. Phyllis laughingly told me of receiving a call from the White House summoning her to be in the backdrop of one of President Johnson’s signings. I don’t recall which one – perhaps it was the signing of the Voting Right Act of 1965 (signed on August 6th). It would be interesting to see if a photo search at LBJ’s presidential library produced an image of Phyllis Wallace amongst the invited guests.
8. Notably Orley Ashenfelter (Princeton), James Heckman (University of Chicago), Ronald Oaxaca (University of Arizona), and Lester Thurow (MIT).
9. Kenneth Clark (1914–2005) was an expert witness on the psychological effect of segregation in education for the Brown v. Kansas Board of Education, 1954.
10. To name only a few, Ron Ferguson of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Glenn Lowry of Brown University, Lisa Lynch of Brandeis, Julianne Malveaux, and Linda Datcher (who, like Phyllis, died too soon).