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National Black History Month: Honoring a Century of Excellence in Data Collection and Use

For more than 100 years, African American leaders in the Department of Commerce have been making significant, innovative contributions to our collection of data to help us better understand our country and our world. Through locations across the country, the Commerce Department provides services crucial to deploying connectivity, data, and information to businesses, American communities, and  tribal, state and local governments—all who rely on our data to make informed decisions across all sectors of the economy.

In honor of Black History Month, the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) are recognizing three Black leaders who have made a lasting impact in the field of data collection and use.

Gertrude E. Rush: Census Enumerator and Legal Pioneer

The U.S. Census Bureau is proud of its history of hiring a diverse workforce.  Census work was one of the earliest government jobs open to minorities. The Census Bureau has been hiring African Americans as enumerators and data processors since the 1870 Census, the first census conducted after the abolition of slavery.  But many of these enumerators faced harassment and death threats, despite their protected status as government agents.

In 1910, the Census Bureau issued guidelines that communities with two-fifths African American populations should have African American enumerators. That same year, Gertrude E Rush, born Gertrude Elzora Durden, became one of only two African Americans to pass the Census Bureau’s enumerator examination in Des Moines, Iowa, and joined the 1,605 African American enumerators working nationwide. The Iowa Bystander applauded the hiring of "colored" census takers, congratulating and hailing them as "respected citizens."

In addition to her role as a census enumerator, perhaps the most important of Rush’s many accomplishments was in the field of law. In 1918, she became the first African American admitted to the Iowa state bar. She would remain the only African American woman to practice law in Iowa until the 1950s. In 1921, she became president of the Iowa Colored Bar Association, becoming the first woman to lead a coed state bar association.  Four years later, after being denied admission to the American Bar Association, she and four other African American lawyers (who were men) founded the Negro Bar Association (now called the National Bar Association). It currently boasts about 65,000 members, predominantly African American.

Rush, also an author and activist in the civil rights and women’s movements, died in Des Moines on September 5, 1962, at the age of 82.  

In 2010, 100 years after Rush became one of the nation’s first African American enumerators, the National Bar Association, which she helped found, was among the groups that worked with the Census Bureau to help ensure accurate counts of historically underrepresented groups.

Larry Irving: NTIA Leader and Broadband Data Groundbreaker

More than 25 years ago, the Internet was still evolving from a network utilized primarily in academia and government to the dynamic engine for innovation and economic growth that we know today.

Larry Irving: NTIA Leader and Broadband Data Groundbreaker

At the center of it all was Larry Irving, the first African American assistant secretary to lead the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Irving played a pivotal role in developing policies and programs to ensure access to telecommunications and information technologies.

As part of his work to develop public policy in this new era, Irving led an effort to improve our understanding of who was being left behind in the Internet Age. In 1994, Irving commissioned the Census Bureau to collect data on Americans’ use of computers and compare it with key demographic information, such as race, age and income. This survey was among the first to reveal the existence of the “digital divide,” a phrase popularized by Irving.

NTIA’s Internet Use Survey continues to this day. This past November, the 16th edition of the survey went into the field. With its large sample size and more than 50 questions about Internet usage, it is the most comprehensive national survey of how Americans connect to the Internet and what they do when they’re online. NTIA plans to release the results of the survey and our analysis of the data in the coming months.

Unfortunately, the digital divide that Irving identified in the 1990s is still with us today. The 2019 NTIA Internet Use Survey found that 65 million Americans still did not use the Internet at all, and that significant racial, educational, income, and other disparities in adoption continued to persist. Help is on the way, however. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $65 billion, including about $48 billion to NTIA, for expanding broadband in communities across the U.S., creating more low-cost broadband service options, and addressing the digital equity and inclusion needs in our communities.

In 2019, Irving was elected to the Internet Hall of Fame, which honored his groundbreaking work to identify the digital divide and advocate for equitable access to the Internet. Today he is president of the Irving Group, a consulting firm, and Chairman of the Board for the Public Broadcasting Service. NTIA recognizes Irving’s monumental achievements and lasting legacy as a champion for universal internet access.

Jeffrey Barnett: BEA Economist Sheds Light on Pandemic’s Impact on U.S. Economy

For Jeffrey Barnett, an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Black History Month is “a time to reflect and recognize the significant contributions African Americans have made to the United States. It’s also a time to remember the extraordinary sacrifices Black men and women have made to allow us to have the freedoms we have today.”

In December, Barnett was honored with BEA’s George Jaszi Employee Excellence Award for “consistently demonstrating exceptional leadership skills, vision, and tenacity.” Barnett, chief of the National Economic Accounts’ Business and Consumer Services Branch, was recognized for his innovative research that led to the development of alternative, high-frequency indicators for measuring the services sector’s economic activity. His research directly contributed to a better understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on the U.S. economy, according to the text accompanying his award.

In addition to the Jaszi award, Barnett was part of a group that won a Gold Medal last year from the Commerce Department for customer service. Barnett and his colleagues were honored for rapidly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing new way to analyze and measure record-setting disruptions to the U.S. economy.

Barnett holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Howard University and a master’s degree in management from the University of Maryland Global Campus. Barnett has served on BEA’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and is currently a member of the council’s External Community Initiatives Subgroup. In 2020, he participated as a panelist on the council’s “Conversation on Race.”

To learn more about the valuable data products provided by these three bureaus please visit their respective websites: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), U.S. Census Bureau and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).