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From humble beginnings in Florence County, a South Carolina native reached political heights
Silver-haired in her 80th year, Rosslee Douglas has established a routine that keeps her mind active as the approaching years threaten to dim the memories of when she befriended a South Carolina governor, served a U.S. president, and helped create a national holiday for a man named King. Seated at her dining room table in the Sandpiper Village retirement community, Douglas notes, “I have worked with old people most of my life, and I know what happens to people as they grow older.”
She spends her days reading magazines, watching educational television, and earning a few dollars completing online surveys for new consumer products. It’s a short walk from her apartment to Sandpiper’s nursing center, where she also reads the Bible to residents. “All of this keeps me thinking; this keeps me in touch with the world,” she says. “As you get older, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Her lifestyle today is vastly different from the trailblazing career that began in the decades following desegregation. She was the first black person to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from the Medical University of South Carolina; the first black person to serve on the state panel that was the forerunner of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission; and, on the national level, the highest-ranking black person in the Reagan Administration, serving as director of the Office of Minority Economic Impact in the U.S. Department of Energy.
Born to Anglin and Rozenia Green in rural Florence County, South Carolina, Douglas began her journey of lifelong learning and a career in public service when she graduated with honors from the Avery Institute in Charleston in 1947, followed in 1952 with a degree from the Lincoln School of Nurses in the Bronx—where she met and married a U.S. Army serviceman named Earl Douglas—and, finally, a B.S. in nursing in 1972. Her education, an extraordinary accomplishment in and of itself during the dark days of segregation, laid the groundwork for the rest of her life, as did one fortuitous meeting between Earl and a man named James B. Edwards.
On a warm fall day in the early 1970s, Edwards, an oral surgeon and chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party, arrived at a coffee shop on Charleston’s West Side, where the talkative Earl Douglas—who was a conservative journalist for several local and national newspapers—was holding court. Earl recognized him, and before long Edwards joined his table to participate in the lively conversation.
The two quickly realized that, although they came from vastly different cultures, they were ideological twins, as Earl’s opinions aligned with Edwards’ politics. “I didn’t want government interfering with my life,” Edwards recalls. “I wanted government to do what it was designed to do: protect the common defense and provide for the common welfare. That doesn’t mean paying people a salary to do nothing. Earl was a sincere, conservative black writer. He wanted a strong military; he wanted less regulation, less taxation; he was a fundamental conservative, and our friendship grew.”
Edwards was elected governor in 1974, the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction. As governor, Edwards pledged to appoint blacks and women to positions in state government. By this time, Douglas had become a seasoned administrator at the Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center in Charleston, where she established the regulations to license home health care agencies in South Carolina. Having come to know Rosslee through his friendship with Earl, Edwards deemed her the perfect candidate for his goal of opening up service opportunities to minorities and women. In 1978, he appointed her to the South Carolina Industrial Commission, founded in 1935 to administer and enforce the state’s first workers’ compensation laws. During the two years Douglas served, Edwards recalls her as being “one of the best qualified persons to have ever been appointed to the commission.”
Midway through her term, Earl began to limp noticeably. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and died on June 5, 1979, at age 56. A year and a half later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Edwards, who was involved in Reagan’s campaign, told Douglas, “If I go to Washington, I’m going to take you with me.” He soon lived up to his promise. When Reagan appointed Edwards to head up the DOE as Secretary of Energy in 1981, he extended an invitation to Douglas to join him. “He called me and said, ‘I’ve got a job for you, so come on up,’” she recalls. In February 1981, Reagan personally appointed her as director of DOE’s Office of Minority Economic Impact, placing Douglas just one step below a cabinet post.
Douglas’ office in Washington helped women and minority businesses, colleges, and universities participate in DOE research projects. During her tenure, the office also created a minority bank development program and provided financial aid to black colleges and universities. On the occasion of her Senate confirmation hearing on May 13, 1981, Douglas said: “Every citizen should be afforded the opportunity to contribute. (We) will reach out positively to minority communities and encourage their full participation in energy policies and programs.” When Edwards stepped down as energy secretary in November 1982 to serve as MUSC’s president, Douglas stayed on at the DOE.
By virtue of her presidential appointment and being the only high-ranking black person in the administration, Douglas was a natural choice for Reagan to appoint as secretary of the newly created Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Commission two years later. During the commission’s four-year span from 1985 to 1989, Douglas met with some of America’s most recognized figures from politics, the arts, business, and civil rights to organize the first national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader.
As the executive branch’s representative on the commission, Douglas didn’t flinch in the glare of the national spotlight beside King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and singer Stevie Wonder. “I knew myself and what I could do, and I felt I could compete with anyone,” she says. Those who know her agree that she rose to new heights because of the trust others placed in her demonstrated abilities.
Douglas recalls the commission originally wanted church bells to chime across the nation during the first national King holiday, but she thought it wouldn’t be a fitting tribute. “Bells ringing are a tone of sadness; birthdays are joyous,” she says, alluding to the fact that the holiday should be a celebration of King’s life rather than merely a solemn commemoration of his death. “We were remembering a man who spent his life trying to make things better for other people.” Douglas says it pleases her to know that less than 18 years after King’s assassination, the nation created a holiday in his honor. “Finally, people began to realize that people are people and all blood is red.”
Douglas served alongside two other South Carolinians who had direct or indirect ties with the King Commission: former South Carolina Senator Ernest F. Hollings and James Clyburn, then the commissioner of South Carolina’s Human Affairs Commission and now the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Edwards had confidence in her, and they complemented one another,” says Clyburn. “She is a very practical woman who understood what needed to be done and how to make the system work for people.”
Douglas says that, although her late husband helped shape her political beliefs, hers were tempered by her upbringing and education. “I was always aware that in the South there were places that black people couldn’t enter, but it didn’t make me feel like less of a person, it just gave me the resolve to find a way to combat discrimination,” she says. “I just wanted the opportunity to earn it, and education was my way out. You can do anything for yourself if you try hard enough.”