Julia Smith Oliver (1926-2006) gained recognition throughout the state and nation as a social worker and administrator in charge of the Alabama Department of Pensions and Security (now the Alabama Department of Human Resources). She was the first woman to occupy a major cabinet position in Alabama history. Her appointment also was one of the rare occasions that such a selection, normally a political appointment, came from the ranks of the state civil service.
Julia Jervey Smith was born on August 11, 1926, the daughter of Francis Weston Smith and Irene Mercer Tift, in Albany, Georgia, the youngest of three daughters. Her great-grandfather, Nelson Tift, was the founder of Albany. Julia attended Sullins Academy, a boarding school in Bristol, Virginia, and then entered the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, where she met her husband, John Percival Oliver of Wicksburg, Houston County, who was studying law. They married in 1946 and would have four sons.
Oliver finished her degree in 1947 and taught school in Dadeville, Tallapoosa County, for several years. She wanted to return to Albany and enter politics, but her husband refused to leave Alabama. In her role as the wife of a local attorney with child-rearing responsibilities, she quickly became bored with card-playing and gossip. However, she soon became interested in the welfare of the disadvantaged citizens of her community. Thus in 1954, during an era when women, especially in small towns, were expected to serve as homemakers, Oliver broke the mold and became a county case worker for the Department of Pensions and Security. She moved up to child welfare worker and in 1961 became human resources director for Tallapoosa County. After completing a master's degree in social work from Florida State University in 1969, Oliver was named one of four assistant directors for the Department of Pensions and Security in Montgomery in January 1971. Soon, she became director of the department's state-level Bureau of Information Service, where she drafted legislation, a task that she enjoyed, and lobbied the legislature. Then as external administrator, she coordinated county welfare programs with the state headquarters and served as the contact for the news media.
In these capacities, she worked closely with Ruben King, commissioner of the Department of Pensions and Securities; he was impressed enough with her work that when he resigned in 1974, at his behest and that of Gov. George Wallace, the Pension and Securities Board selected her by unanimous vote to be commissioner for the entire department. Normally, political considerations were uppermost in appointments at this level and women candidates were virtually nonexistent. But Oliver's abilities as a two-decade career employee as well as her professional degree in the innovative field of social work made her the obvious choice. Newspapers in Dadeville, Alexander City, Montgomery, and Birmingham heralded the appointment as a triumph of good sense, pointing out that too often competent women were overlooked for major positions and that it was refreshing to have a person already trained to undertake this complex role.
Oliver assumed the heavy responsibility with aplomb, commuting daily from Dadeville to Montgomery and working ten-hour days for the duration of her term. She oversaw 4,000 employees and administered a yearly budget of $250 million that included the food stamps nutrition program, disabled and child protection services, and aid to families for 67 counties. The primary consideration under her administration was the welfare of the state's disadvantaged citizens, especially the aged and disabled. Oliver's appointment came at a critical time, coinciding with significant changes in welfare programs mandated at the federal level. These changes included establishing a statewide system to determine Medicaid eligibility for groups and individuals not receiving current coverage, broadening the food stamp distribution network for some 30 counties not included in the federal program, improving emergency and welfare services to areas devastated by floods and tornadoes, and implementing federal standards for Social Security aid to adults, including stabilizing the state-financed supplementary aid program for the aged and disabled. The latter, involving a massive transfer of recipients of cash benefits from state to federal oversight, required heavy workloads and the close cooperation of the respective state and federal agencies. Oliver's diligence, resulting in the transfer of 130,000 aged, blind, and disabled Alabamians to supplemental federal coverage, earned her a citation from the United States Social Security Administration. It was also a factor in her election as president of the Alabama Conference of Social Work and reappointment for a full four-year term as commissioner in 1975. The Alabama Conference also named Smith "Social Worker of the Year" in 1975. She later served as president of the Alabama Mental Health Association, vice-president of the National Mental Health Association, vice-president of the American Welfare Association, and chairman of the Alabama Resources Development Committee.
Overall, Olivier administered her agency with little interference from Governor Wallace who had other legal and political
concerns, including a presidential run in 1976. She did, however, have confrontations with the powerful highway commissioner,
Ray Bass, over funding for their respective agencies, compelling Wallace to force them both into retirement in 1978. Oliver
returned to public service with Pensions and Security (which became the Department of Human Resources in 1986) with an office
in Dadeville, while concurrently serving as a congressional lobbyist with the Mental Health Association of America with an
office in Arlington, Virginia. Upon full retirement, she continued her involvement in civic affairs by assisting with fund-raisers
to support the Dadeville Public Library. Julia Oliver died on April 26, 2006, and was buried in the Dadeville City Cemetery.
Ingram, Burr. "The Lady Commissioner." Alabama News Magazine 42 (August 1976): 10-11.
"Mrs. Oliver State Social Work President." Birmingham News, April 4, 1975.
"New Commissioner." Alabama Social Welfare 34 (March-April 1974): 1-2.
McCress, Patrick. "'Outstanding Individual' Oliver Dies." Dadeville Record, May 4, 2006.
"Memoranda for Biographical Sketch of Julia Jervey Smith Oliver." Surname Files, Alabama
Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
Wasson, Don F. "Mrs. Oliver Tackles Priorities." Montgomery Advertiser, February 18, 1974.
John D. Fair
University of Texas, Austin
Published October 24, 2013
Last updated November 14, 2013