When Sudan became independent of British colonial rule in 1956, it established diplomatic relations with the United States and requested U.S. help in setting up a central bank.
That July, officials at the U.S. State Department asked Brimmer, who had been working as an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York since June 1955, and two senior-level Federal Reserve members to participate in a technical mission to Sudan to help with that request.
Brimmer and his colleagues – Oliver Wheeler, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and head of the mission, and Alan Holmes, a senior economist and economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – arrived in Sudan in December 1956 and stayed until the following March.
Charged with developing a blueprint for a central bank, the team interviewed commercial bankers, government officials, business owners and community members before drafting a central bank charter. The document laid out the bank’s rights and authorized its operation. The government of Sudan established the central bank in July 1959 based on their work.
Brimmer’s diary from the trip — housed at Harvard University — offers a glimpse into some of his other experiences. He attended festivities marking Sudan’s first anniversary of independence and attended the first match of the inaugural African Cup of Nations soccer tournament.
He took pictures of the University of Khartoum and sites along the Blue Nile, and also attended a flower show by the Horticultural Society of the Sudan.
Perhaps his diary’s most interesting moments concern his recollection of how Sudanese perceived him. One woman, Brimmer wrote, “wanted to know why I could not speak Arabic!” She was apparently in disbelief that he was not Sudanese. “When I told her how I got to be in the U.S. and that she and I may be cousins, she laughed.”
Back in the U.S., Brimmer went on to work in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. And in a historic move, Johnson nominated him to the Federal Reserve Bank’s Board of Governors on Feb. 26, 1966. That body oversees the 12 Reserve banks in the system and works to promote a fair consumer financial services market.
After his Senate confirmation, Brimmer joined the board on March 9, 1966, becoming the first Black member in its history. There, he earned a reputation as the resident expert on international monetary policy.
He was also considered an authority on Black economic issues who often advocated for affirmative action, co-chaired the Interracial Council for Business Opportunity and argued that racial discrimination hurt the U.S. economy by effectively sidelining potentially productive workers. He also maintained that racial discrimination in education was responsible for Black people earning lower incomes than white people.