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Original WKMS story description
Ersa Hines Poston grew up in western Kentucky during the great depression, went on to work for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller during the Civil Rights movement and was appointed by President Carter to the Civil Service Commission, the first African American woman appointed to this position. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Sarah Hopley, Special Collections & Exhibits Librarian, about the life of this remarkable woman from our region.
Ersa Hines Poston was born in 1921 in Mayfield and lived there for four years until 1925, when her father died of tuberculosis. She and her mother moved to Paducah to live with her paternal grandparents, where she lived until she left for college to Kentucky State University. She later got her graduate degree at Atlanta University.
While living in Paducah with her grandparents, her grandmother is said to have had a lot of respect for education and made a concerted effort to send her granddaughter to college. One weekend at the market, they ran in to Alben Barkley. Her grandmother told him that one day her granddaughter would go to college, to which Barkley responded with a big smile and said "when you do that, you let me know." So she did and kept up correspondence with Barkley who was impressed she went to grad school.
After graduating with a master's degree in social work, she went to work in New York with Governor Nelson Rockefeller. She was appointed the New York Office of Economic Opportunity between 1965 and 1967, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. She was also a UN delegate.
In 1977, President Carter appointed her to be on the three person panel of the Civil Service Commission, the first African American appointed to that position. On this panel, she worked to allow the government means in which to hire employees on a merit basis rather than the relationships they had, for instance the civil service exam.
The commission was in operation for two years before being dissolved into two organizations, the Office of Personnel Management and Merit Systems Protection Board. Poston was the vice-chair of the latter until her retirement in 1983.
As an historical aside, Poston is said to have been a Republican and President Nixon wanted her to be on a board. But when the administration approached her, she found out they had secretly run a background check on her without telling her, which upset her and caused her not to serve in the position.
Poston seems to have been a private person, Hopley says, and when coming across information about her, it's usually only a paragraph or two. Pogue Library has on record that she was part of an oral history project in the late 1970s, focusing on African Americans in western Kentucky. Unfortunately, this recording is missing.
Ersa Poston was briefly married to famed Hopkinsville native Ted Poston, known for being the first African American journalist employed by a major newspaper.
She died in Boston in 2009 at the age of 87. Commenting on Paducah, she mentioned that in the 1980s and 90s, she felt like Paducah was worse off then compared to her time growing up in the 1920s and 30s regarding her thoughts on racial tension, issues in the human rights commission and discriminatory hiring practices. During the depression, her grandmother ran a soup kitchen for both whites and blacks in the community and through this experience she felt that she saw all types of people working together and helping each other.
Poston's father ran a restaurant and hotel in Paducah called Bob's Place. Hopley says she'd love to hear more about this establishment if anyone has family stories or memories about it.
WKMS, Matt Markgraf, Sounds Good
Markgraf, Matt; Hopley, Sarah; and WKMS, "How a West KY Native Became the First African American Woman on the Civil Service Commission" (2016). Special Collections on WKMS. 16.