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|Patricia Roberts Harris
Ambassador, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
Patricia Roberts was born in Mattoon, Illinois, on May 31, 1924. Her father was a railroad Pullman Porter, and her mother was a schoolteacher. She attended high school in Chicago, and did so well that she received five scholarship offers to college. She chose Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelors degree in economics and political science in 1945.
An active member of the civil rights movement while at Howard, Roberts participated in civil rights protests in Washington, D.C., in 1943, and in a student sit-in at a whites-only cafeteria. She also served as Assistant Director for the American Council of Human Rights.
After graduating from Howard, Roberts pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, while serving as program director for the Young Women's Christian Association in Chicago. In 1949 she returned to Washington, D.C., where she did further graduate work at American University and worked as assistant director of the American Council on Human Rights (19491953). She also served six years as executive director of the national headquarters of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and from 1956 to 1960 she chaired the Housing Committee of the Washington Urban League. She married Howard University law professor William Harris in 1955.
Encouraged by her husband, Harris graduated top of her class from the George Washington University Law School in 1960, after which she spent about a year in the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She left the Justice Department after being appointed to the faculty of the Law School at Howard University, where she subsequently attained the rank of Associate Professor and later Associate Dean of Students.
By now active in the Democratic Party, Harris was asked to serve on a number of federal civil rights commissions, including as co-chair of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, with Mildred McAfee Horton (in 1963). From 1962 to 1965 she worked with the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union. Although she relinquished her administrative post at Howard in 1963, she remained on the Howard faculty.
Harris gave the seconding address for Lyndon Johnson's presidential nomination at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1965 President Johnson named her Ambassador to Luxembourg, and she served in that position until 1967; she thus became the first black woman to ever serve as a U.S. Ambassador.
Harris returned to Howard as a full professor, and was named Dean of the School of Law in 1969. She resigned the latter post a month later, however, when Howard University President James E. Cheek refused to support her strong stand against student protests. She then entered private practice in corporate law, while also serving on the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP's executive board (1967-1977).
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter nominated Harris as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. During a contentious Senate confirmation hearing, she was criticized for her establishment connections and questioned by Senator William Proxmire as to whether or not she was adequately attuned to the problems of poor Americans. Harris response was: Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. Im a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. Im a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in some parts of the District of Columbia. Senator, to say Im not by and of and for the people is to show a lack of understanding of who I am and where I came from. Her nomination was confirmed, and she became the first black woman to hold a Cabinet position.
President Carter undertook a massive reorganization of his Cabinet in 1979, during which Harris was asked to become Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (which subsequently became the Department of Health and Human Services). She served in that position through the end of Carter's term, after which she returned to private law practice and became Professor of Law at the George Washington National Law Center.
Patricia Roberts Harris died of breast cancer in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 1985.
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This page was last updated on September 25, 2017.