Dean, William H.

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William H. Dean

Economist, educator

William H. Dean was an economist and United Nations staff member. He overcame racial discrimination and hardships to excel academically at some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. In Haiti and Somaliland he used his expertise in economics to improve the quality of life for local people. Dean was one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in economics.

William H. Dean Jr. was born on July 6, 1910 in Lynchburg, Virginia, the third of four children to Reverend and Mrs. William Henry Dean Sr. His early years were spent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Lynchburg, Virginia where his father was the pastor of several churches.

Dean graduated from Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 as class valedictorian. He won a college scholarship from the Baltimore chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. During his junior year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received the B.A. summa cum laude in 1930. He earned an MA. in 1932 and a Ph.D. in economics (1938) from Harvard University. At Harvard he was a university scholar (1930–31), Henry Lee Memorial fellow (1931–32), and Edward Austin fellow (1932–33). His doctoral dissertation, "The Theory of Geographical Location of Economic Activity," was published in 1938 by Edward Brothers Inc. and used as a text in economics courses.

However, despite all his academic achievements and knowledge, Harvard refused to hire Dean to a tutorial post, an honor usually given to the top person in a specific discipline. According to the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, a 1939 letter from Abbot Payson, professor of economics at Harvard, to the Board of Higher Education, New York City stated: "Beyond any possible doubt he is the most talented man has at any time worked under my direction_We deeply regret that special circumstances make it impossible for us to use Dr. Dean here at Harvard. Any institution that can place Dr. Dean on its staff will be indeed fortunate. He is a man of exceptional attainment and promise."

Dean taught economics and business administration at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia from 1933 to 1942. As associate professor of economics and business administration, he introduced courses on labor economics and invited workers from various occupations to visit his classes and talk about their jobs. He tried to improve opportunities for Negro workers on the Bell Aircraft bomber plant in nearby Marietta, Georgia. Dean was a realist and a perfectionist; he realized that the company and white workers resisted equal opportunity for Negro workers. He also surveyed thirteen cities for the National Urban League, thus contributing to record of urban history.


Born in Lynchburg, Virginia on July 6
Graduates as valedictorian of his class from Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland
Earns B.A. from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine
Earns M.A. in economics from Harvard University
Serves as economics and business administration professor at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia
Earns Ph.D. from Harvard University
Serves as executive at Price Administration in the Virgin Islands
Serves as director of Community Relations Project at the National Urban League
Receives United Nations Africa Unit Chief status
Directs mission to Italian Somaliland
Commits suicide in New York City on January 8

Dean lectured on economics during the summer of 1939 at the City College of New York. He was also a con-sultant to the National Resources Planning Board from 1940 to 1942. From 1942 to 1944 Dean served as chief economist at the Office of Price Administration, a U.S. federal agency in World War II established to prevent war time inflation, in the Virgin Islands and Haiti.

Becomes United Nations Africa Unit Chief

Dean became acting chief of the United Nations Africa Unit Division of Economic Stability and Development after serving as director of the Community Relations Project of the National Urban League from 1944 to 1946. In 1949 he was made unit chief. In 1949 he also served as secretary to the United Nations mission to Haiti. In 1950 he was appointed administrative officer and second-ranking officer of a United Nations mission to Libya.

In 1939, the City College of New York and Queens College refused to appoint Dean as a member of the faculty, despite the endorsement of Professor Frederick W. Taussig of Harvard; Walter White, secretary of the NAACP; and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The discrimination was reminiscent of Harvard's earlier refusal to hire him.

In 1949, Dean went to Haiti as secretary of the United Nations technical assistance mission. The result of this trip was one of the best analyses of Haiti's problems regarding demography, health, production, transportation, trade, and finance. Its excellent recommendations, however, produced few beneficial results because of the magnitude of the problems and the failure of the United Nations and the United States to provide adequate funds.

Directs Italian Somaliland Mission

During four months in late 1951, Dean directed a six-man mission to Italian Somaliland to determine the means by which that colony could be made self-supporting. The mission to Somaliland documented the shameful legacy of colonialism. Dean returned from his trip despondent, fearing the trip had been a failure, concerned for the hardship endured by people in primitive living conditions in Italian Somaliland, and frustrated by the Italian government. Dean attempted to improve Soma-liland's technical development. On January 8, 1952, shortly after his return to the United States, he committed suicide in the New York City apartment of his father-in-law Channing H. Tobias. His funeral was held at St. Mark's Methodist Church, New York City with internment in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. He was survived by his wife Mary Tobias Dean, whom he had married in 1936, a son Channing, and daughter Joyce.



DeWerff, Timothy J., ed. "William H. Dean." Concise Dictionary of American Biography. Vol.1. New York: Scribner's, 1997.

Logan, Rayford. "William H. Dean." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

                                Prudence White Bryant