FOIA The Dead

Walter J. Leonard

Walter Jewell Leonard was best known as the architect of Harvard's influential affirmative action program beginning in 1969. The admissions policy has been emulated by schools around the country and the world. In 1955, he was investigated by the FBI during an application of his own, to serve as a corrections officer in an Atlanta federal prison.

The overwhelming majority of Leonard's FBI file is the product of that investigation, which included exhaustive background checks into his education, his Coast Guard service, his employment history, and his finances ("All offices note Appli[cant]'s poor credit rating," p. 17). Unsurprisingly, that history reflects the Jim Crow south in which Leonard was raised, including conflicting and ultimately discredited stories about insubordination and even embezzlement at various jobs.

One example: he worked as a waiter at the restaurant O'Donnell's Sea Grill from 1950-1, and reportedly was fired for refusing to serve another cashier. Further FBI inquiries showed that Leonard was not at fault for the incident—"his discharge was the result of a misunderstanding and [the office manager of the restaurant] now felt that the applicant was not reprehensible." In the FBI's own words in 1966: "Atlanta file shows that LEONARD was discharged from two jobs in Washington, D.C., and had poor credit rating while there; however, there appears to be some question as to whether he was actually discharged or resigned. There also appears to be some question as to whether these actions by the employers were justified or had a sound basis." (p. 68)

But the records from after the application are even more illuminating about the work that would eventually win him national recognition. He received the prison job but was terminated seven months later, in October 1955. His file includes excerpts from a letter he wrote to the warden at the time.

LEONARD wrote that in connection with the decision by the Board of Supervisors to terminate his services, he wished to appraise the Warden of some "rumors" and "falsehoods." He mentions allegations made to the effect that he was a "spy" for the Bureau of Prisons and that he was placed at Atlanta to "break down segregation" and push for "integration." The letter notes that "these things are out of proportion to common sense." LEONARD continued, "It has been suggested that I have aired views, contrary to institution practice, along racial lines. If I knew who started this absurd propaganda, I would feel inclined to institute a suit for libel. Even if I had observed some discrimination, I am intelligent enough to realize I don't have the authority to contradict the administration of this institution." ...

"I do not want to think that there was a racial angle to the opinion of my supervisors. I have written the Bureau, I have made no mention of this point; wanting to discuss this with you personally. I am not interested in the personal whims, prejudices, or selfish motives of anyone. My purpose is to do and keep a job.

(pp. 72-3. Emphasis added.)

Of course, some 15 years later Leonard would go on to have the authority at an institution where he was able to correct discrimination.

Some records from his file from that era are largely redacted. Context suggests that, in 1956, the FBI contacted Leonard to evaluate his suitability as an informant about the activities of members of the Nation of Islam, due to his position as office manager at "Forrest Arms Hotel, ... where three of the Assistant Ministers of the Atlanta Temple reside ... He has been asked to attend their meetings and although he has not yet attended, he stated he will in the near future." (p. 68)

The question of his informing seems to be mooted when Leonard lost that job and, in August of 1956, Leonard moved to Chicago, as one of millions of African American participants in the greater sociological phenomenon dubbed The Great Migration.

Finally, in 1979, a review of his file was made in advance of Leonard's presidential appointment by Jimmy Carter to serve on the United States Naval Academy Board of Visitors.

New York Times obit: Walter J. Leonard, Pioneer of Affirmative Action in Harvard Admissions, Dies at 86