The presidential aide and confidant stood beside a blown-up image of her great-grandfather, looking up as it towered over her. She shares his broad forehead, his cafe-au-lait complexion — and surely his drive to achieve.
Here was Valerie Jarrett on stage at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, beaming proudly as her forebear Robert Robinson Taylor became the 38th person inducted into the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage Stamp series. She called her mother to the front of the crowd. She whispered to her daughter. She thanked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for coming to the ceremony.
“Well! This is a celebration that we are having today,” she began.
In 1892, Taylor became the first black to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went on to become the nation’s first academically trained black architect and developed a long relationship with educator Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
For Jarrett, it was not just a moment to see her family’s story inscribed into the federal government’s historical archive; it was also a most glamorous kind of family reunion. Jarrett called out the names of her older relatives: her momma, Aunt Lanita, Uncle Bobby, and cousin Ann Jordan, the Washington philanthropist and socialite.
“We never have dignitaries like this,” a former local postmaster whispered, waving her hand around at the VIPs in the room. Indeed, it was an “Our Kind of People” gathering of America’s black upper class. Ann Jordan’s husband, businessman and political fixer Vernon Jordan, was there. John Rogers, chief executive of Ariel Investments and a Jarrett pal from Chicago, came. A few Congressional Black Caucus members and officials from Howard and Tuskegee universities attended as well. Together they stood as a Howard choir sang the national anthem and the Negro national anthem.
Taylor was praised variously as the “hope and promise of a proud people” and as a man who “expanded opportunities for African Americans in fields that had largely been closed to them.” But the crowd of onlookers and cadre of journalists filling out the rear of the audience were there to see Jarrett, the woman with the White House office and long history with President Obama.
Jarrett pointed them back to Taylor, whom she spoke of as an inspiration. “Any time I face a daunting and challenging task and self-doubt creeps in — and, yes, that does happen from time to time — I think of my great-grandfather Robert Taylor, the son of a slave, who traveled all the way from Wilmington, North Carolina, to attend MIT,” she said. “And I try to imagine what he was thinking on that way.”
The crowd applauded. Vernon Jordan nodded his approval. For the Postal Service, under constant fire on Capitol Hill for its financial failures, having a high-ranking White House official on hand to celebrate a worthy relative’s stamp made for a good morning.
Quick to tamp down any whiff of impropriety, Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders noted that the familial connection between Jarrett and Taylor was sheer coincidence, unknown to the service until after he was selected for the honor.
Taylor’s name was placed into consideration by Henry Louis Gates, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” which featured Jarrett last year. Gates, one of 14 members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, said in an interview this week that he recommended Taylor for a stamp in 2005, along with 30 other African Americans he thought should be so honored.
“He was on my original list,” said Gates, who had learned of Taylor during his undergraduate studies at Yale. “I was reading ‘The Story of the Negro’ by Booker T. Washington — loved the book — and came upon the story of the father of Robert Robinson Taylor.”
Taylor’s father, Henry, had been a slave in Wilmington but was treated as a freeman, allowed to operate his own business. Gates later learned that Robert Taylor had spent time on Martha’s Vineyard, where Gates also summers, deepening his interest. (Small world: Jarrett also spends time there.)
Gates, a stamp enthusiast who has long wanted to see more African Americans in the sciences honored with stamps, led the effort to see Taylor’s stamp pushed through.
“It’s a pleasant surprise to learn that he has an equally prominent relative,” Gates said. “In case you are wondering, I did not know.”
A former member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee said the Taylor stamp was fast-tracked to honor him while Jarrett was in Washington, but Gates and Postal Service officials said the stamp was unrelated to her position.
The ceremony also served as a reclamation of Taylor’s name. In the decades after his death in 1942, the words Robert Taylor came to be associated more with a failed housing project in Chicago than a life’s accomplishments. Constructed in 1961, the housing project was named for Robert Rochon Taylor, the son of Robert Robinson Taylor and the grandfather of Jarrett. The homes, built to house low-income blacks, became a scandal — crime-ridden and rife with gang violence — before being demolished a decade ago.
The stamp is an artistic rendering of a photograph of a 20-something Taylor, circa 1890, his MIT days: sleek, center-parted hair, thick mustache. Soon, his face will show up in post offices across the country, his biography on the back of stamp booklets, “immortalized on a limited edition forever stamp,” according to the Postal Service.
As the crowd headed upstairs to buy the new stamps, Jarrett took the stage again, calling all her relatives to the front for huggy photos in front of the six-foot replica of Taylor’s stamp. She lingered, enjoying the moment.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.