First Black female secret service agent, Zandra Flemister, dies at 71

Flemister experienced racist and discriminatory acts from the beginning of her employment in 1974, frequently being assigned unfavorable duties.

Zandra Flemister, America’s first Black female Secret Service agent, died Feb. 21 at 71.

Former CIA employee John Collinge confirmed his wife’s death and shared that she passed away from respiratory failure brought on by Alzheimer’s disease at a care facility in Kensington, Maryland, The Washington Post reported.

Flemister joined the Secret Service in 1974, more than 15 years after Charles L. Gittens, the first Black special agent, was hired in 1956. She experienced racist and discriminatory acts from the beginning of her employment, frequently being assigned unfavorable duties.

The Secret Service emblem adorns an agent’s vest. Last week, Zandra Flemister, the nation’s first Black female Secret Service agent, died at age 71. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“I remained in the Secret Service because I wanted to be a trailblazer for other African-American women,” she wrote in an affidavit supporting a racial discrimination lawsuit against filed against the Secret Service in 2000, The Post reported.

Flemister was not a plaintiff in the suit, which focused on actions taken by the Secret Service in the 1990s and 2000s. More than 100 Black special agents joined the lawsuit. According to Collinge, Flemister provided her affidavit as proof of the agency’s long legacy of racism, which included Black agents commonly losing promotions to white coworkers with less expertise or lower performance evaluations.

Collinge said Flemister was proud of having protected Susan Ford, the daughter of President Gerald Ford, “without being obtrusive” when the teenager went out on dates. She also guarded Amy Carter, the daughter of President Jimmy Carter, who attended public school in Washington.

At one point, a superior reportedly informed her she would have to give up her Afro hairstyle to garner more prestigious, higher-paying security details. Although she did and was placed on protective duty, she said that she was rotated around to make the agency “appear racially diverse,” according to The Post.

Due to her race, Flemister performed a “disproportionate” quantity of undercover work for the Secret Service. Her complaints of sexual harassment and racial discrimination included male agents knocking on her hotel door during overnight missions.

While on duty at the Washington field office, Flemister recalled a fellow agent gesturing to her and saying, “Whose prisoner is she?” On a different occasion, a coworker covered her picture with a gorilla image on her formal identification card. 

Flemister claimed she overheard white special agents use the same term commonly used for suspects in criminal investigations to disparage the presidents of Grenada and Senegal. When she mentioned the incidents to a superior, she said, authorities did nothing.

Flemister left the organization in 1978 and joined the Foreign Service at a lower pay rate, working for the State Department for over three decades in various global locations.

According to The Post, the retention rate for Black female special agents in the Secret Service was so poor that by 2001, not one had served long enough to retire.

Foreign Service veteran Joyce Barr said that when she and Flemister joined the State Department, “there were very few women and an even smaller number of Black women,” The Post reported. “It was very, very challenging because people assumed that you were only there because of your gender and your skin color and that you were inherently ineffective — that’s the way they would approach you.”

Flemister started experiencing memory loss, due to early-onset dementia, in her early 50s, and was unable to monitor the progress of the discrimination case against the Secret Service following her retirement in 2011.

The Secret Service ultimately reached a $24 million settlement in 2017, with the agency promising to change its promotion procedure but denying any wrongdoing or institutional prejudice.

“With my requests for transfers to career-enhancing squads consistently denied, my credibility and competency constantly questioned, and the common use of racial epithets in my presence,” Flemister wrote in the affidavit, according to The Post, “I saw the handwriting on the wall: Because of my race I would never be allowed to have a successful career in the Secret Service.”

In addition to her husband, Flemister is survived by her son, Samuel Collinge, both of Bethesda, Maryland.

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