Patricia Roberts Harris

Jul 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Journalism & Law, Politics
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Patricia Roberts Harris1924-1985  Patricia Harris worked her way up from modest origins to become a trail-blazer for African Americans and women in the federal government at the highest levels. She served two Presidents in numerous roles, and achieved notable results in striving for improvements in housing and services for poor people and equitable treatment for women.

Early Promise and Potential

Harris was born in 1924 in Mattoon, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her father was a railroad Pullman Porter, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Harris attended high school in Chicago, where her performance earned her a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, Harris was exposed to racial injustice and segregation in the nation’s capitol, then as now a city with a large African American population. In 1943, she participated in a sit-in to force the desegregation of a lunch counter as part of the emerging civil rights movement. She graduated summa cum laude in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. She also met a law school professor there, William B. Harris, whom she would soon marry.

Returning to Chicago, Harris served as Program Director of the local branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1946, while attending graduate school at the University of Chicago. She then pursued further graduate studies back in Washington, D.C. from 1949 through 1950, this time at American University. During and after this period of graduate study, Harris served as an Assistant Director of the Civil Rights Agency of the American Council on Human Rights, and from 1956 through 1960 she chaired the Housing Committee of the Washington Urban League. At her husband’s urging, she attended George Washington University Law School, graduating in 1960 at the very top of her class.

Upon graduation, Harris began work as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. This lasted only one year, when she was appointed to the faculty of the Law School at Howard University. She attained the rank of Associate Professor while becoming active in Democratic political circles, and was asked to serve on a number of federal civil rights commissions. Shortly after a meeting with Robert Kennedy in 1963, she was named Co-Chair for the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. In 1964, Harris gave the seconding address for the presidential nomination of Lyndon B. Johnson, with an emphasis on securing equal rights and universal justice.

An African American Ambassador

In 1965, President Johnson named Harris to the position of U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. She was confirmed by the Senate, and became the first black woman to serve in an ambassadorial role. This lasted until 1967, when she returned to Howard University and the rank of full professor. In 1969, she was named Dean of the Law School, but just one month later a student protest polarized opinion on campus. Harris was vocally opposed to the protest, earning her the enmity of much of the student body. The senior administration of the school would not support her, and she resigned in 1969.

Harris entered private practice in corporate law, while remaining active in civil rights circles. She worked with the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP, serving on the Fund’s executive board from 1967 through 1977. Then, in recognition of her achievements in federal and public service, President Jimmy Carter nominated Harris as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1977. 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 eloquent, moving, and to the point: “Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I’m a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. I’m a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in some parts of the District of Columbia. Senator, to say I’m not by and of and for the people is to show a lack of understanding of who I am and where I came from.”

She was ultimately confirmed, becoming the first African American woman at the Cabinet Secretary level. Harris transformed a department with a reputation for inefficient operations and ineffective results. She brought strong management to the bureaucracy, while improving its ability to provide better access for minorities to affordable housing, building greater economic opportunities in blighted neighborhoods, and battling discrimination against women in mortgage lending. President Carter reshuffled his Cabinet in the summer of 1979, at which time he nominated Harris to take over as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was again confirmed, and served as Secretary of what became known as the Department of Health and Human Services until the end of the Carter administration in 1981.

Harris returned to private law practice, and became Professor of Law at the George Washington National Law Center. In 1982, she ran against Marion S. Barry in the mayoral election for the District of Columbia. She lost, partly due to her failure to convince voters that a strong manager was preferable to a skilled politician, and partly due to her continued identification with the middle class. She died of breast cancer on March 23, 1985, leaving a legacy of achievement in the social and civil rights realms and an unparalleled record of “firsts” for African American women: ambassador, cabinet secretary, major corporate board member, participant in a presidential nomination, dean of a law school, and others. Harris’ published writings included “Law and Moral Issues,” “To Fill the Gap,” and “Problems and Solutions in Achieving Equality for Women.”


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