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A Profile of Gwendolyn A. Williams Bullock-Smith: Mother of Invention

By Nancy Foye-Cox

Gwendolyn A. Williams Bullock-Smith, PhD was the first president and is considered the “founding mother” of the National Conference of Minority Public Administrators (COMPA) of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA).  Her official involvement with ASPA predates the Task Forces for Women in 1971. And COMPA’s founding predates all ASPA sections and the ASPA Task Forces for Women with the unique status of being a formal ASPA affiliate organization.

Gwendolyn A. Williams was born in New York City on October 18, 1930 one of four children – three daughters and one son, born to Herman Williams Sr. and Mary Barnes Williams.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1911, her father had a ninth-grade education, but he compensated by reading extensively and developing a strong sense of self.  He worked as a laborer on the docks in New York City and Baltimore, Maryland, retiring from Bethlehem Steel as a foreman. Her father was very active in the labor union and their fight for better working conditions and the hiring of black college grads in management positions.  Bullock-Smith attributes learning about political and labor activism from her father

Her mother was a graduate of Douglas High School in Baltimore.  Marriage and children ended her dream of college.  However, she stressed the importance of education to her children. She died at age 42 in 1954.

Her only brother – Herman Williams, Jr. was among the first African-Americans hired by the Baltimore City Fire Department; he retired as chief.  Prior to that he was deputy director of Public Works and head of the Transportation Department.  He attended college at night acquiring a Bachelor’s degree. Her nephew Montel Williams is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a television talk show host.

In 1934, her parents moved the family back to Baltimore, Maryland, where Gwen attended Baltimore public elementary school until 1940. In fifth grade, Gwen contracted Rheumatic Fever, which resulted in heart damage.  She was on total bed rest for two years. Having attended school for eight months, she became sick again in 1943. Williams did not attend high school. Instead, she graduated in June 1948 from Cortez W. Peters Business School in Baltimore at age 17 ½.

When she graduated, Williams’ father drove her to Washington, DC to take the clerk-stenographer exam at the U.S. Veterans Administration. Hired on June 21, 1948 as a temporary clerk-stenographer, grade 2, at an annual salary of $2,168.00, she commuted by rail to Washington, DC until her 18th birthday in 1948.  Her official service as a permanent federal employee began on September 9, 1948. When she retired in May 1989 from the District of Columbia government, she had 41 years of service with the federal and District of Columbia governments.

Asked what inspired her to join government service, Bullock-Smith responded:

My inspiration for working in government was an advertisement for the Cortez W. Peters Business School in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, which extolled career opportunities in government in Washington, DC.  I had educated myself during my long illness through reading literature up to the college level and felt too mature for eighth grade at age 16. I persuaded my parents to seek support from the Maryland State Vocational Education program to place me in the business school. Mrs. Wilkey, assistant director of the business school, spoke highly of opportunities to serve the country through working in government.  She emphasized the dignity and value of being a part of a work team devoted to helping people by improving the health, education and welfare of all.  Racial bias limited job opportunities in Baltimore.

Williams married John A. Bullock, a U.S. Air Force Korean War veteran, in December 1951, and they divorced in August 1960.  He died in 1990; they had no children.

Bullock moved to the U.S. Department of Labor on March 18, 1952, serving in the Bureau of Employment Security and the Bureau of Labor Management Relations, where she was assigned as administrative assistant to David North – assistant to the Secretary of BLMR.  North and Bullock were loaned to Henry Jackson – chairman of the National Democratic Party, to assist with the1960 Presidential campaign.

Upon President Kennedy’s assassination, Vice-President Johnson succeeded him as president in November 1963.  President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd, and subsequently the Economic Opportunity Act on August 20, 1964, establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) within the Office of the President. Between 1964 and 1969, Bullock was a Community Affairs officer with the Manpower Programs in OEO and an Urban Policy specialist with the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development.

This African-American visionary was one of two female members of the first class of 27 National Urban Fellows (NUF) in 1969-1970. NUF was funded by the Ford Foundation through the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Its purpose was to develop public agency managers and executives from among minority persons experienced in local community poverty programs. An intensive academic-experiential learning program, it was designed to include mentor executives from local governments and non-profit agencies.

Bullock’s mentor was Philip J. Rutledge – director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Resources.  Rutledge was a member of the ASPA National Council and soon to be ASPA’s first African-American president. As a result of her association with Rutledge, Bullock became actively involved in ASPA.

At the end of the NUF program, Bullock received a Masters degree in Urban Studies from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California on July 25, 1975. Concurrently, she was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in administration/management from Antioch College on June 25, 1975.  Subsequently, she completed a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Public Administration from American University in 1989.

Bullock was 40 years old when the historic meeting, which created COMPA, was held at ASPA headquarters on October 24, 1970.  It was Bullock, who met with the ASPA National Council and successfully argued for acceptance of COMPA as an ASPA affiliate, presenting COMPA’s proposed articles of incorporation, by-laws, and organizational structure.  After considerable debate “over the wisdom of having a woman as president,” it was Bullock who was ultimately elected COMPA’s first president during the ASPA National Conference in Denver, Colorado (April 18 – 21, 1971).  She was honored by COMPA in 1972 at the National Conference in New York City for her role in “establishing and institutionalizing” COMPA as an affiliate of ASPA.

In 1981, COMPA president Lenneal Henderson commemorated the 10th anniversary of Bullock’s historic COMPA presidency with a plaque, which read:

Gwendolyn A. Bullock – President (1971 – 1973). In appreciation of your leadership in furthering the efforts of Minorities in public service and your contributions as the First President of the Conference of Minority Public Administrators.

According to Bullock-Smith, “The process I used to structure a special interest group within ASPA was a departure from how policy and program ideas were adopted by the National Council of ASPA in the past. COMPA’s establishment encouraged the women of ASPA to organize.”

Ultimately, the other founding members of COMPA from the first NUF class did not remain involved with ASPA. Rather they ran for and won public offices and became CEOs of non-profit agencies and leaders in community development.  Bullock discontinued active participation in COMPA in 1974.

James Baldwin (COMPA’s second president) was head of EEO in the District of Columbia and attracted a lot of people who were dedicated to advocating for increased employment of minorities at higher grades or levels of responsibility. This was good, but I wanted more substantive involvement at the policy level across a wide range of areas.

I still believe that when minorities and women are actively involved in using their skills      and relationships to influence “quality of life” services at all levels of government, as an employee or volunteer, they will be sought after for the “right” jobs.

From 1973 to 1979, Bullock was chief of Recruitment and Career Placement with the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Resources. She returned to the federal government between 1980 and 1984, first as a Personnel Management specialist with the Policy and Operations Division of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) with Workforce Effectiveness Development, and then as chief of Training Consulting Services with OPM.  In 1984, she finished her government career as administrator of the Office of Administration and Management with the District of Columbia’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Bullock-Smith served on the board of the Hospital for Sick Children in Washington, DC for 15 years. During her tenure with the hospital’s board, they:

• created a managed care program for severely disabled children, which permitted them to be cared for at home; and

• completed construction of a new hospital building to accommodate parents and their educational needs to care for severely disabled children at home.

In September 1991, she moved back to her childhood home of Baltimore and bought a home on a quarter-acre of wooded land and proceeded to plant seven flower and vegetable gardens. A highly successful gardener, she is the treasurer of the Ten Hills Garden Club.

Retirement is a misnomer for Bullock-Smith’s life status, as she continues to maintain a full schedule of community activities.  Her typical day starts at 6:30 AM and ends at 2:00 AM.  Asked why she devotes much of her time to such efforts, she replied:

I heard Hitler’s philosophy on the radio in 1941, asserting that “only the fit and strong should survive, and other non-contributors to society should be disposed of.”  I felt I had to prove I had a right to be alive and that I would become a valuable contributor to society.  Later, I learned that God would one day ask you to account for the talents he had given you. And again, I felt that I had to prove to God that my living was worthwhile.  I did not share these thoughts with my parents, and I did not stop to remember that I was only twelve years old.  Thus I have literally been driven all of my life to make a difference and viewed all employment and volunteer activities as earning my ticket to heaven…

We can’t all be a Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King, or Condolezza Rice, artists or athletes. But much that is good in our world gets done by ordinary people doing a million extraordinary things every minute of the day.  The people, at all skill levels, that I have met in hospitals, classrooms, and public service jobs make me happy to be a part of this society!

In 1991, she joined Heritage United Church of Christ serving as Women’s Guild president and later as Church Council president.  She was also chair of the Church and Ministry Commission and a member of the Committee on Church Development of the Chesapeake Association of Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ.

In 1992, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke appointed her to the Baltimore Planning Commission for five years. From 1997 to December 2006, she has served as a board member of Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore and chaired their Quality Care Commission.

On July 26, 1996, Bullock married Edgar Smith Jr. and was widowed in August 2001. She has a close relationship with his grandson – Terrell D. Smith.  Sent in behind the bombing, bit-by-bit he speaks about some of his close calls in Iraq. He returned with no visible wounds after three years in Iraq.

She really likes the old hymn that says, “Let the life I’ve lived speak for me.”

Source:  Interview with Gwendolyn A. Williams Bullock-Smith, PhD in June 2006.

This profile was reprinted from the book “Profiles of Outstanding Women in Public Administration.” The book is available for purchase on the ASPA website. To purchase the book, click here.

Author: Nancy Foye-Cox co-chaired the ASPA National Committee for Women in Public Administration (1980-1981) and is a retired victim advocate with the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office in Akron, Ohio.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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