minister, U.S. Congressman, educator, and business executive, was born in Los Angeles, California, the eighth of thirteen children of Robert Flake Sr., a janitor, and Rosie Lee Johnson. Shortly after Floyd's birth, the family moved into a two-bedroom home in Houston, Texas. The roots of many of Floyd's political beliefs can be traced to his southern upbringing: his family was poor, but proud; racism abounded, but faith and optimism ruled the Flake home.Floyd's early education took place in segregated, poorly equipped schools, but his teachers were dedicated and took a stern...
minister, U.S. Congressman, educator, and business executive, was born in Los Angeles, California, the eighth of thirteen children of Robert Flake Sr., a janitor, and Rosie Lee Johnson. Shortly after Floyd's birth, the family moved into a two-bedroom home in Houston, Texas. The roots of many of Floyd's political beliefs can be traced to his southern upbringing: his family was poor, but proud; racism abounded, but faith and optimism ruled the Flake home.Floyd's early education took place in segregated, poorly equipped schools, but his teachers were dedicated and took a stern interest in his academic development. One teacher cared enough to make sure that Floyd spent much of his free time involved in youth programs at her African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. After graduating from high school Flake entered Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private African American University, in Ohio. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1967, and while working toward his master's—which he received in 1970 from nearby Payne Theological Seminary—he worked as a social worker and as a marketing analyst for the Xerox Corporation. His first academic post was as associate dean of students at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which he held from 1970 to 1973.In 1974 Flake moved to Massachusetts to become director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Afro-American Center at Boston University. His duties expanded to include serving as a dean and interim chaplain of the university. There he met Margaret Elaine McCollins. The two were married in 1977, had four children, and became ministerial partners. Eventually, they would both earn doctor of ministry degrees from United Theological Seminary; Flake's was awarded in 1994.Though he had never led a local congregation, in 1976 Flake was persuaded by Bishop Richard Allen Hilderbrand to leave Boston University in order to pastor the Allen AME Church in Queens, New York. By the 1970s Queens had become home to the largest black middle class community in the United States, and the Allen AME Church had 1,400 members when Flake took over. Under his dynamic leadership the church was transformed from an elite sanctuary into an entity deeply involved in social, economic, political, and educational affairs, as such becoming a model of the social gospel made manifest in urban America. Flake argued that “the black church has the potential to be more than just a once a week emotional cathartic experience but, rather, an empowering and liberating force if utilized properly” (Owens, 5).The creation of the Allen Christian School in 1982 was the first prominent example of Flake's radical approach to old problems. Whereas black ministers in the old-style protest tradition—such as Al Sharpton, Herbert Daughtry, and Calvin Butts—often inveighed against the failing public schools, Flake was determined to provide a quality education in a safe and clean environment for a fraction of what the city claimed it spent on each pupil. The Allen School grew from the church basement to a new $3.8 million, four-story facility serving over 500 students from preschool through the eighth grade. The church then moved into other areas of concern by creating nearly a dozen corporations (some for profit). The Allen Housing and Development Fund used church and federal money to build a 300-unit senior citizens' complex that also housed drug programs, a health and nutrition center, and other community services. The Allen Housing Corporation functioned as a real estate developer that purchased property, managed commercial businesses, and built over one hundred affordable homes in the vicinity of the church. The Allen Women's Resource Center operated a shelter for battered women with children that offered intervention counseling and legal aid. The Allen Transportation Corporation operated a fleet of coaches that competed favorably with larger bus lines for local business.On the basis of these accomplishments Flake decided to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election called in 1986 when Joseph P. Addabbo, a white politician who represented the sixth congressional district for twenty-six years, died in office. Many of Flakes supports believed the election had been stolen from him because Flake defeated the black assemblyman Alton R. Waldon at the polls by 167 votes, but when the absentee ballots—which did not include Flake's name—were counted, Waldon emerged the victor. Energized by this setback (and with the controversial support of Mayor Edward Koch, who campaigned for Flake in the Italian and Jewish areas of the district), Flake won a decisive victory over Waldon a few months later in the regular election.Flake served in the Congress on the powerful Banking and Financial Services Committee from 1986 to 1997. In many ways he was a maverick, representing a new kind of black politician. Unlike “Yellow Dog” Democrats, who faithfully held the party line, Flake was a “Blue Dog” Democrat, who supported using financial markets and private industry to develop blighted areas and who did not concede the rhetoric of religion and personal responsibility to the Christian right. When some Democrats sounded apocalyptic about the possible effects of Republican control and wailed, “They don't give us a chance, they're taking away our affirmative action, they're taking away our welfare,” Flake railed, “I say to you, there was a time when we lived without it, and if they take it away, we can live without it again!” (New York Times, 19 Oct. 1997, sec. 6, 60).Like Kweisi Mfume and William H. Gray III, Flake was a dealmaker and a member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that produced moderate Democrats such as Bill Clinton. Often his stance put him at odds with the Congressional Black Caucus. He crossed party lines to introduce the American Community Renewal Act, which would have offered educational vouchers to parents who wished to send their children to private or parochial schools. J. C. Watts, the only black Republican in the House, had introduced a similar bill, but Flake was the only Democrat who voted for it. Similarly, Flake was almost alone among Democrats in supporting the capital-gains tax cut. However, his most successful piece of legislation was the Community Development Financial Institutions Act of 1993, which contained a provision called the Bank Enterprise Act that made capital available to black entrepreneurs and those seeking home mortgages. Despite his independent streak Flake won all his reelection contests by wide margins, in part because he was so effective in bringing jobs and money to his constituents. In 1995 he brought home to his district revenue and federal building projects worth $230 million, more than any other downstate representative from New York.During his tenure in Congress, in 1987, Flake weathered a racial crisis in Howard Beach, Queens, in which four black men were beaten by a white mob and one victim chased to his death. Flake also survived a scurrilous accusation of infidelity and a seventeen-count indictment against him and his wife for income-tax evasion and embezzlement in connection with the senior-citizen home; the presiding judge dismissed the case for insufficient evidence in 1991. In the middle of his term in 1997 Flake gave up his seat in Congress in order to focus more attention on his congregation, which had burgeoned to over ten thousand members and had recently completed construction of a $23 million edifice called the Greater Allen Cathedral. The new name sublimated the church's AME affiliation and allowed it to function as a modern transdenominational “mega church,” broadcasting services and other programs on radio and television. By 2004 the church had net assets of over $70 million, and including its many corporations it employed more than six hundred people, making it one of the largest black businesses in the nation and the largest employer in Queens except for John F. Kennedy Airport.Nevertheless Flake continued to be a shrewd political operator. His fervent belief in charter schools led him to endorse Republicans who also championed the idea, such as Senator Alfonse D'Amato (NY), Governor George Pataki (NY), and Governor Jeb Bush (FL). Flake even embraced George W. Bush as his “home boy” and lauded the president's Faith-Based Initiatives and his No Child Left Behind” education program. However, when Flake endorsed the reelection of Rudolph Giuliani, the racially embattled Republican mayor of the city, the city's largest black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, editorialized that Flake had “sold out” the black community for the political largesse that he and his church hoped to receive.The business community and conservative think tanks liked Flake's urbane style, his freethinking, and his appreciation of capitalism at its best. As a result he was invited to serve on such corporate boards of directors as the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Export-Import Bank; he became a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Social and Economic Policy, and an adjunct fellow with the Brookings Institute Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy; and he became an op-ed columnist for the New York Post. From May 2000 to September 2002 Flake served as president of Edison Schools Inc., a national for-profit organization that manages thousands of schools across the nation. In July 2002 he assumed the presidency of his alma mater, Wilberforce University. He is coauthor of two books: The Way of the Bootstrapper: Nine Action Steps for Achieving Your Dreams (2000) and Practical Virtue: Learning to Live With All Our Soul (2004). Flake managed all of these activities while leading his congregation, making him a modern mix of the conservative Booker T. Washington and the strident preacher Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
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