Breaking Titanium Ceilings: Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., First Black CEO of a Fortune 500 Company Combats Racism on the Inside

Breaking Titanium Ceilings: Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., First Black CEO of a Fortune 500 Company Combats Racism on the Inside

As CEO of TIAA-CREF, Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. broke through the corporate titanium ceiling to become the first Black to head a Fortune 500 company, paving the path for the upward trajectory of generations of Black executives.

Born in Boston, Wharton’s upbringing in the home of his diplomat father is reflected in his education and his legacy. He would later leverage his knowledge and leadership positions to build a multi-billion dollar corporation from the ground up.

Wharton’s legacy transcends beyond his role as former chairman and CEO of the iconic financial giant. He has served as trustee or director of more than 26 business corporations and public affairs associations since 1967, becoming an empowering model of Black leadership.

(Image: Clifton R. Wharton, Jr./ Wikimedia Creative Commons)

From Boston to corporate international

Wharton holds an undergraduate degree in history from Harvard, and a masters degree in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

After receiving his Masters and PhD degrees in economics, the University of Chicago grad traveled extensively, directing programs abroad. He was a visiting professor who taught and conducted research in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia while working as a council associate for the Agricultural Development Council from 1958 to 1964. The council was an organization headed by John D. Rockefeller, III.

Later, Wharton stepped up as vice president of the council, and maintained that position until he began his term as Michigan State University‘s fourteenth president in January 1970. He made history as the first African American person to hold that title.

During his tenure, Wharton managed to preserve the quality of MSU’s academic programs with a commitment to the education of the economically disadvantaged.

Throughout his career, Wharton has been awarded honorary doctorates from 63 universities. He has contributed to writing and editing to four books and monographs and more than 50 professional journal articles.

In 1977, Wharton resigned and went on to serve as Chancellorship at the State University of New York before heading TIAA-CREF, the leading provider of financial services in the academic, research, medical, cultural, and governmental fields.

He also served as the chair of the presidentially appointed Board for International Food and Agricultural Development from 1976 to 1983.

In 1982, Wharton solidified his place in history again as he became chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, and later named a fellow of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) in 1988.

Years later, Wharton served as the first African American to ever hold the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State position, the second highest foreign policy post, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1993.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony “Tony” Blinken poses for a photo with former Deputy Secretaries of State Bill Burns, Clifton Wharton, and John Negroponte at a Foreign Service Institute reception highlighting American diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 2, 2016. (Image: U.S. Department of State / Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The recognition of a power couple

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Executive Leadership Council, one of the event’s most powerful moments was when business and political powerhouse Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. presented the 2016 Lifetime Legacy Award to power couple Wharton and his wife Dolores D. Wharton.

“Gordon Parks had this great expression: ‘choice of weapons,’” said Clifton, quoting the celebrated Black photographer and author about the means to combat racism in receiving the honor, per BLACK ENTERPRISE. “In terms of fighting, you always have a choice of weapons. Some of us chose to do our fighting on the inside.”

The ELC presented the 2016 Lifetime Legacy Award to Dr. Clifton A. Wharton
(Image: Twitter/LayshaWard)

Dolores Wharton, a former foundation executive and arts advocate, was a corporate pioneer herself. She was the first woman and African American to serve on the boards of Phillips Petroleum, The Kellogg Co., and Gannett Media.

The Wharton legacy lives on in Black history and generations to come.