Edward C. Sylvester, 81, who held high-level positions in the Johnson administration, helped guide the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George S. McGovern and later was staff director of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, died Feb. 12 of respiratory failure at the Washington Home, a District nursing facility.
Mr. Sylvester was in the first wave of African American professionals to step into national leadership positions during the ferment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He joined the Department of Labor under President John F. Kennedy in 1962 as deputy administrator of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, helping formulate policies on international trade.
Edward C. Sylvester "was tactful and creative, yet firm and insistent" in labor compliance issues.
"We were allies of the civil rights movement," said journalist and educator Roger Wilkins, who served with Mr. Sylvester in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. "Part of what we did was carry out the legislation that the civil rights movement had started."
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mr. Sylvester became the first director of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance in 1965. It was a new position and, at the time, a new concept in federal oversight of contractors. Mr. Sylvester was responsible for enforcing federal standards of equal opportunity; any company or labor union that practiced discrimination was subject to losing its federal contracts.
During his three years in the post, Mr. Sylvester initiated high-profile actions against Crown Zellerbach, a West Coast paper company, and Bethlehem Steel's Sparrow Point plant in Baltimore County.
In 1966, white union members walked off the construction site of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, refusing to work with black plumbers. Mr. Sylvester, a Labor Department official, was put in the unusual position of asking the U.S. attorney general's office to take legal action against the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor union.
"It was a new program, and it was fraught with controversy," Wilkins said of the compliance office. "There were parties on all sides that were on razor's edge. To have a black guy in the '60s doing this would have been difficult if it hadn't been someone like Ed. He was tactful and creative, yet firm and insistent."
Mr. Sylvester left the Labor Department in 1968 to become assistant secretary of health, education and welfare (now health and human services). After his confirmation by the Senate, he coordinated the Office of Civil Rights, the Office of Consumer Services and the Model Cities program during the final year of Johnson's Great Society.
In 1972, Mr. Sylvester took a leave of absence from his position as president of the Cooperative Assistance Fund, a nonprofit that advanced minority business enterprises, to become national coordinator of the campaign of McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee.
He also served, from 1967 to 1973, on the old D.C. Board of Higher Education, including three years as its chairman, before relinquishing his leadership position in 1972. In a fiery resignation letter, he expressed his disgust with Harland L. Randolph, president of Federal City College, a predecessor of the University of the District of Columbia: "His approach to the board and its members has generally lacked candor, frequently been devious and manipulative, and at times just plain lies."
From 1975 to 1993, Mr. Sylvester was staff director of the House of Representatives Committee on the District of Columbia, serving as a liaison between Congress and D.C. officials in the early years of the District's home rule.
Though he worked in policy and administration throughout his years in Washington, Mr. Sylvester was trained as an engineer in his native Detroit, where he graduated from Wayne State University. He served in the Army during World War II, rising from the rank of private to first lieutenant during service in Europe and the Pacific.
From 1949 to 1957, he was a civil and structural engineer for the city of Detroit, supervising highway and water systems. In 1958 and 1959, he was president of a timber company in Liberia. He was on the national presidential campaign staff of then-Sen. W. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) in 1960.
Mr. Sylvester was a member of many professional organizations and panels dedicated to equal opportunity and labor. He led U.S. delegations to overseas labor conferences in the 1960s and, in 1966, was vice chairman of a White House conference on civil rights. He was chairman of the Minority Contractors Assistance Project and of the finance committee of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation. He served on the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among other civic affiliations.
He received three meritorious service awards from the Labor Department, including its highest honor, the Award for Distinguished Achievement, in 1968. In 1990, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole presented Mr. Sylvester the Outstanding Service Award, primarily for his work as the nation's first director of contract compliance.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Lucy Howard Sylvester of Washington; three children, Lynn Sylvester and Carol Bradwell, both of Washington, and Edward C. Sylvester III of Sarasota, Fla.; and a grandson.