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Julius Becton, Army general who led FEMA and D.C. schools, dies at 97

General Julius Becton in 1997, when he was head of the Washington, D.C., school system.Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Julius W. Becton Jr., a three-star Army general who retired as one of the military’s highest-ranking Black officers, then led the nation’s disaster-relief agency and D.C. public schools, died Nov. 28 at a retirement home in Fairfax County. He was 97.

The cause was complications from dementia, said his daughter Joyce Best.

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, General Becton was 17 when he volunteered for service in the still-segregated Army, viewing the military as a way out of poverty. He went on to become a decorated veteran of three wars, receiving the Silver Star in Korea and Vietnam and serving as the first Black officer to lead what was then the Army’s largest basic-training program, at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

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In 1978, he was appointed commander of the VII Corps in West Germany, becoming the first Black commander of an Army corps.

"He served as a mentor to those who followed in his distinguished footsteps," Colin Powell, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later said. "I was one of them and would never have risen without his example and help."

After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant general in 1983, General Becton led the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, supporting relief efforts for an earthquake that struck Mexico City and a famine that ravaged Ethiopia. He was tapped to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1985, after his predecessor resigned amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

General Becton coordinated the federal response to disasters, including floods that swamped parts of the Mid-Atlantic just as he took office, and was credited with overhauling FEMA itself. “He brought a sense of integrity back to the agency,” said Jane Bullock, FEMA’s chief of staff, in a 1996 interview with The Washington Post. “He gave people in the agency a sense of direction.”

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By many accounts, he oversaw a similar turnaround at his alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black public school near Houston. He was appointed president in 1989, taking over at a time when the school was hurt by low morale and public mistrust, with crumbling dormitories, a rash of crime on campus and a financial crisis that led him to temporarily halt most athletic programs.

General Becton called in the Texas Rangers to investigate allegations of financial misconduct, leading to indictments against eight administrators, and he oversaw fund-raising efforts that reportedly grew the endowment to $10 million from $4.8 million. But he frustrated some faculty and alumni who accused him of lacking a long-term vision, and who criticized him for dismantling a football program that went on a record-setting 80-game losing streak after play resumed.

He had been retired for two years, living in Northern Virginia, when he accepted an offer to lead D.C. public schools in November 1996. The city was in the midst of a financial crisis, with its politics and finances overseen by the federally mandated D.C. financial control board, and the school system was in disarray: Facilities were falling apart, test scores were dismal and administrators struggled to complete basic tasks, such as mailing paychecks to teachers.

General Becton said he took the superintendent’s job out of a sense of duty to the District’s approximately 80,000 students, including many who were from poor Black families like his own. His father was a janitor with a third-grade education, and his mother took in laundry and made it to the 10th grade. All five of his children had attended Washington public schools when he was stationed in the District.

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One of his sons provided crucial encouragement, General Becton recalled, asking him: “How would you feel if five years from now you had a grandchild in the school system, and you had a chance to do something about it and you didn’t?”

General Becton took office answering only to the financial control board, which had fired his predecessor, diminished the authority of the elected school board and empowered the new superintendent to overhaul rules for hiring and firing the system’s employees.

While insisting that a turnaround would take at least five years, General Becton promised to put “children first” and championed a message of integrity, loyalty and chain of command. He fixed leaky roofs, introduced academic and administrative changes, and installed metal detectors to stop students smuggling in weapons.

But he struggled to connect with parents and community leaders, including some who found him aloof and rigid. Critics questioned his decision to close nearly a dozen schools, and a systemwide repair effort caused schools to start three weeks late.

He resigned after 17 months, on the heels of an unexpected $62 million budget shortfall that the system’s finance chief attributed to insufficient funding for the number of employees the system was authorized to have. Anthony A. Williams, the city’s chief financial officer and future mayor, had also released a report concluding that General Becton had failed to fix the school system’s “organizational culture of indifference and resistance.”

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General Becton suggested that he was undermined from within, including by recalcitrant teachers and administrators who had little interest in carrying out his changes. But he also acknowledged that he had failed to reach perhaps his most important constituency.

"If I had one silver bullet, it would be greater parental and community involvement," he said at a news conference announcing his departure. "I did not go out to generate, to develop, as much community and parental involvement as I should have." Trying to reform the District's schools, he later said, "has been the toughest job that I've ever had."

Julius Wesley Becton Jr. was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on June 29, 1926. He grew up attending public schools in Ardmore, where he starred on the football team at Lower Merion High School and volunteered for the Army in 1943 at age 17, starting active-duty military service after he graduated the next year.

“In the ‘40s, a Black man had three ways to become a financial success: He could preach, teach or practice medicine,” General Becton told the New Jersey Record. “I couldn’t be happy staying in the same place, doing the same thing, so I became a soldier.”

General Becton had enlisted in the Army Air Forces, planning to become a pilot. But he failed an eye test and, after a sergeant suggested he apply for officer candidate school, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry.

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While stationed in the Pacific at the close of World War II, he found himself disillusioned by the military's treatment of Black soldiers. He separated from the Army in 1946 and received a football scholarship to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where he was one of the school's first Black students. He returned to active duty in 1948, after President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate.

That same year, he married Louise Thornton, his high school sweetheart. She became a nurse and died in 2019.

In addition to his daughter Joyce, of Alexandria, Va., survivors include four other children: Shirley McKenzie of Alexandria, Karen Johnson of Arlington, Tex., Renee Strickland of Centreville, Va., and Julius “Wes” Becton III of Elmhurst, Ill.; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

General Becton completed his college education at Prairie View A&M, receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1960. He earned a master’s in economics from the University of Maryland in 1967, and five years later he was promoted to brigadier general, becoming one of only eight Black generals in the Army, according to a New York Times report.

By then he had acquired a reputation as an expert battlefield tactician, receiving his first Silver Star after leading a charge up a hill in Korea. According to a military citation, he was struck and wounded but kept fighting, leading his platoon through a chaotic 10-hour firefight while they were separated from the rest of their battalion.

General Becton received his second Silver Star during the Tet Offensive of 1968, while commanding a cavalry squadron during heavy fighting at Sông Bé in Vietnam. His other decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, two Legion of Merit honors and two Purple Hearts.

When General Becton left the Washington schools job, D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, who led the education committee, called him “a man of honor,” adding that he was “someone who wanted to do the right thing, but in many ways fell victim to the same bureaucracy that has hurt so many administrators.”

General Becton said he was exhausted — “physically, emotionally, mentally” — but insisted that he had left the system a better place than he had found it. Education, he never stopped telling reporters and students, was a ticket out of poverty, and nothing less than the future of Washington’s children was at stake when it came to improving the school district.

“I have ridden in the back of that bus, and I have sat at that segregated lunch counter, and I have traveled many miles with my family looking to buy gas and to use the restroom . . . and I was taught that if we got that education, you can never lose it,” he said at a 1997 school assembly. “Let me say that again: If we got that education, you can never lose it.”