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Ersa H. Poston, 87, female pioneer in US Civil Service

ERSA H. POSTON ERSA H. POSTON (washington post)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / January 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Ersa H. Poston, a respected administrator of New York state civil service and equal opportunity agencies who in 1977 became the first black woman appointed to the federal Civil Service Commission, died Jan. 7 at Suburban Hospital of pneumonia. A resident of the Washington area, she was 87.

Ms. Poston, a onetime social worker from rural Kentucky, rose to prominence as director of the New York State Office of Economic Opportunity from 1965 to 1967 and president of the New York State Civil Service Commission from 1967 to 1975.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, a moderate Republican for whom she was a confidential assistant in the early 1960s, once praised Ms. Poston as an "able administrator and a creative planner of programs to expand opportunities and horizons."

Although a Republican, she reportedly turned down an offer in 1969 by President Nixon to chair the US Civil Service Commission because she was offended by the way Nixon aides made the approach, using federal agents to run a background check before she had any clue she was being considered.

Ms. Poston later accepted her nomination by President Carter to the three-member US Civil Service Commission. Working under commission head Alan K. Campbell, she helped dismantle the agency after a US House subcommittee documented merit-system abuses under the Nixon White House.

The commission went defunct in 1979 and divided its duties among three new agencies, the Merit System Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Ms. Poston became vice chairman of the Merit System Protection Board, which adjudicates personnel disputes involving civil service employees. In that position, she was one of the highest-ranking black women in the Reagan administration. She retired in 1983, but continued working for several years as a State Department personnel management consultant.

"A lot has changed," she said while reflecting on her career in 1983, "but I'm a little upset. I'm not sure I agree with the figures that tell us black women are rising in government. I see a diminishing level of black women in strategic positions where they can serve as mentors for both black and white younger women."

Ersa Elizabeth Hines was born in Mayfield, Ky., and was of black and Cherokee ancestry. She said that a distant relative was named Ursa after the constellation resembling a bear but that her mother changed the spelling because she thought the name looked better spelled with an E.

After her mother died when Ersa was 4, she was raised in Paducah, Ky., by her father and paternal grandparents. Their relative prosperity during the Depression - her grandfather was a railroad switchman - led her grandmother to start a soup kitchen from their home.

"Whites and Negroes used to come by," she told The New York Times in 1964. "It's funny, but there wasn't so much discrimination in Paducah those days. That came in later."

Ms. Poston was a former national vice president of the Urban League and served on the board of the Whitney M. Young Memorial Foundation, named after the Kentucky-born civil rights leader who headed the National Urban League until he died in 1971.

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