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Eva M. Clayton
*Eva Clayton was born on this date in 1934. She is a Black politician (retired) and administrator.
Eva McPherson grew up in Savannah and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Johnson C. Smith University in 1955. In 1962, she earned an M.S. in biology and general science from North Carolina Central University. She originally planned to become a doctor and travel to Africa to do missionary work. Shortly after receiving her undergraduate degree, McPherson married lawyer Theaoseus Clayton. They raised four children: Theaoseus Jr., Martin, Reuben, and Joanne.
The American Civil Rights movement mobilized Eva Clayton to become active in civic and political affairs. At one point, she even picketed her husband’s law office to protest his and his white law partner’s ownership of a building that contained a segregated restaurant. As early as 1968, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, seeking election to Congress in a north–central North Carolina district, recruited Clayton.
In the 1970s, she worked for several public/private ventures, including the North Carolina Health Manpower Development Program at the University of North Carolina. In 1974 she cofounded and served as the executive director of Soul City Foundation, a housing organization that renovated dilapidated buildings for use as homeless shelters and daycare centers. Two years later, she worked on the successful gubernatorial campaign of Jim Hunt, who later appointed Clayton the assistant secretary of the North Carolina department of natural resources and community development. Clayton served in that capacity from 1977 until 1981. After leaving state government, she founded an economic development-consulting firm. In 1982 she won election to the Warren County Board of Commissioners, which she chaired until 1990. Over the next decade, Clayton helped steer more than $550 million in investments into the county and also successfully passed a bond issue for the construction of new schools.
When Representative Walter Jones, Sr., announced his retirement in 1992, Clayton secured the support of her other primary opponents and ran on a platform of increased public investment and job training for rural areas in the district, which encompassed a large swath of eastern North Carolina including the towns of Goldsboro, Rocky Mount, and Greenville. On November 3, 1992, she won the special election to fill the last two months of Walter Jones, Sr.’s unexpired term in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993) and defeated Republican Ted Tyler for a full term in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995). Mel Watt, a Black, also won election from a North Carolina district to the House on November 3, but because Clayton was elected to the 102nd Congress, she became the first Black Representative from North Carolina since George White, who left Congress in 1901.
She won spots on the Agriculture and Small Business committees. Clayton eventually became the Ranking Democratic Member on the Agriculture Committee’s Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee. Her Democratic colleagues also elected her the first woman president of the freshman class. In 1995, she was appointed to the Democratic Advisory Committee to formulate party strategy. In 1996 she also played a key part in fighting GOP efforts to cut summer job programs for young people. Declaring that she intended “to wake up” the House, Clayton said that the programs helped more than 615,000 youths in 650 cities and towns: “This is the first opportunity many of these young people have to get a job.”
In the 105th Congress (1997–1999) she dropped her Small Business assignment for a seat on the prestigious Budget Committee. Clayton was also assigned to the Social Security Task Force. Clayton became a staunch defender of the rural and agricultural interests of her district, which comprised 20 counties with numerous peanut and tobacco growers. Although Clayton advocated smaller defense budgets, she remained supportive of naval contracts for projects at the nearby Newport News shipyards, which provided jobs for her constituents.
From her seat on the Agriculture Committee in contrast with many of her Democratic colleagues Clayton supported extending tobacco subsidies to farmers at a time when critics attacked the program. She also fought successfully to preserve Section 515 of the Agriculture Department’s affordable housing program, which provided federal loans for multi–unit housing projects in rural areas. As she gained seniority and prestige in the House, Clayton created a high profile for herself as an advocate for programs to help economically disadvantaged Blacks.
Throughout her career, she stressed the importance of job training. “The issue of equity in jobs and fairness of opportunities is paramount,” Clayton said. “Job opportunities combined with a fair wage is key to strengthening families and communities and increasing our quality of life.” With fellow North Carolinian Mel Watt, Clayton, as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, organized a campaign to help 1 million Blacks buy homes by 2005. In 2001, Clayton declined to seek re-nomination to a sixth term in the House. She had been involved in intense bargaining with state legislators to ensure that her predominantly African American district was “protected” during reapportionment after the 2000 Census. After retiring in January 2003, Clayton returned to her home in Littleton, North Carolina.
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