The Honorable Hazel R. O’Leary was the first Black person and first woman to serve as the Secretary of Energy. O’Leary’s tenure earned both praise and criticism in her four years in the post before she returned to her alma mater of Fisk University to serve as its president.
Born Hazel Reid on May 17, 1937 in Newport News, Virginia, the future Energy Secretary attended Fisk University and the Rutgers School of Law, then became a New Jersey state prosecutor and assistant attorney general.
Under President Jimmy Carter, O’Leary was named to help lead a regulatory division of the newly created Department of Energy. She and her third husband, Jack O’Leary, went into consulting where she served as its general counsel. After her husband passed, O’Leary moved to Minnesota to become part of its executive team. O’Leary’s second husband was the late journalist Max Robinson, the first African-American broadcast network news anchor.
President Bill Clinton announced his intention to nominate O’Leary in 1992 and in January 1993, her nomination was swiftly approved. With strong GOP opposition to the Energy Department, O’Leary had the daunting task of managing the government agency with limited resources yet still excelled.
One of O’Leary’s biggest accomplishments was declassifying Cold War documents that revealed the government performed radiation experiments on human subjects. She also pushed for nuclear testing regulation and helped reveal some of the abuses made by major nuclear power plants and the dangers they posed to the environment.
However, O’Leary’s time in office was not without its troubles. She faced criticism for overspending on global trips and accommodations at the government’s expense and for a reportedly unauthorized payment to a Washington firm to investigate negative complains against her department. Further, a $25,000 donation made by Chinese officials to her favorite charity, Africare, was frowned upon by the GOP and the Clinton Administration.
Nothing ever came of the allegations of misconduct against her but she resigned from the position in January 1997. She later returned to Fisk in 2004, retiring from the post and from public life in 2013.
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