Harris, Patricia Roberts 1924–1985

views updated May 29 2018

Patricia Roberts Harris 19241985

Former U.S. Cabinet secretary, ambassador, attorney

At a Glance


In the late 1970s Patricia Roberts Harris made history when she became the first black woman ever to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary. Under President Jimmy Carter, Harris was named secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1977, and in 1980 became secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW; later renamed Health and Human Services). Prior to her work as Cabinet secretary, Harris had made other breakthroughs, including that of being the first black woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador and the first to head an American law school. Harris brought experience gained in the legal profession to her government positions, having worked as a professor at Howard University Law School in the 1960s and as a successful corporate attorney in Washington, DC, during the 1970s. Her political career, according to Gerald M. Boyd, writing in the New York Times, was marked by a series of increasingly prominent positions in government, and was a result of Harriss combination of hard work with shrewd political sense.

In her role as Cabinet secretary, Harris became known as a competent and firm administrator of the numerous departments that comprised both HUD and HEW. She was a vocal critic of racially discriminatory practices in housing and employment and a proponent of government intervention to assist the poor. Initially, however, Harris was criticized on the grounds that her experience as a corporate lawyer distanced her from the concerns of HUD. Furthermore, she was often described, Boyd noted, as being out of touch with the mainstream of black America, for which she frequently was called on to speak. In response to such challenges during her 1976 confirmation hearings, Harris testified to her empathy for the disadvantaged groups she sought to champion. As J. Clay Smith, Jr., recounted in Notable Black American Women, Harris told Senator William Proxmire: You do not understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a Pullman car waiter. I am a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of the District of Columbia. I didnt start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.

Harris was born in 1924 in Mattoon, Illinois, and was raised by her mother, Hildren C. Roberts. From a young

At a Glance

Born May 31,1924, in Mattoon, IL; died of cancer, March 23,1985, in Washington, DC; daughter of Bert (a dining-car waiter) and Hildren C. Roberts; married William Beasley Harris (a lawyer; died November, 1984). Education: Howard University, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1945; graduate studies at the University of Chicago, c. 1946-49, and American University, beginning, 1949; George Washington University Law School, graduate, 1960. Politics: Democrat.

U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, member of appeals and research staff, criminal division, c. 1960; Howard University, Washington, DC, 1961-65 and 1967-69, began as law school lecturer and associate dean of students, became dean of law school, 1969; U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, 1965-67; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Kampelman (law firm), Washington, DC, c. 1970-77; U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, 1977-80; U.S. secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1980; ran for mayor of Washington, DC, 1982; George Washington University, Washington, DC, law professor, 1983-85. Worked during the 1940s and 1950s for the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA), Chicago; Delta Sigma Theta, executive secretary, beginning 1953; alternate delegate, United Nations General Assembly, 1966-67. Member of the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank, Scott Paper Company, and IBM. Trustee, Twentieth Century Fund.

Awards: Alumni Achievement Award, George Washington University, c. 1965; Distinguished Achievement Award, Howard University, 1966; Order of Oaken Crown, 1967.

Member: Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Kappa.

age she displayed a drive to achieve academic excellence while also devoting considerable energy to civil rights activities and social work. After receiving five scholarship offers to attend college, Harris chose Howard University in Washington, DC, from which she graduated in 1945 with highest honors. While at Howard, Harris also served as vice-chairman of a student branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was involved in early nonviolent demonstrations against racial discrimination, including a sit-in protest at a whites-only Washington restaurant. She returned to Illinois in 1945 to study industrial relations at the University of Chicago, and at the same time became active in the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA). Returning to Washington in 1949 to continue graduate studies at American University, Harris furthered her involvement with social organizations, working as an assistant director for the American Council of Human Rights.

From 1953 to 1959 Harris served as executive director of the national black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. A self-described generalist, she pursued law as a career, concluding that it was the discipline best suited to fulfill her range of academic and social interests. With the encouragement of her husband, attorney William Beasley Harris, Harris enrolled in George Washington University Law School; she graduated at the top of her class in 1960. After working for a year with the U.S. Department of Justice, Harris became a part-time law lecturer at Howard University, being named associate professor in 1965. Harriss work as a social activist reached new levels at this time when she was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to co-chair the National Womens Committee for Civil Rights, an umbrella organization encompassing some 100 womens groups throughout the United States. In 1965 Harris was chosen by President Lyndon Johnson to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, the first black woman ever to be named an American envoy. I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, she was quoted as saying in the New York Post, but also a little sad about being the first Negro woman because it implies we were not considered before.

Following her diplomat duties Harris returned to Howard and in 1969 served as dean of its law school another first for a black woman. She followed this feat with several years as a corporate attorney, during which she also served on the boards of several U.S. corporations. According to Smith in Notable Black American Women, Harris firmly believed that social change could be influenced by corporate responsibility. Her 1977 appointment by President Carter to become secretary of HUD gave Harris an opportunity to fight racial discrimination in housing practices and advocate government financial support for inner cities. Harris held, as stated in a speech quoted by Smith, that the Federal Government has adopted national policy which simultaneously addresses the weakening of older central cities economies, the causes and negative effects of suburbanization, and the plight of central city minority groups. In many cases, it has inadvertently contributed to the problems. As a Cabinet secretary Harris was considered a tough negotiator for her departments and policies. Carters domestic policy advisor, Stuart E. Eizenstat, was quoted by New York Times contributor Boyd as saying that Harris usually won battles concerning funding for her departments. Carter himself praised Harris, describing her as a fine Cabinet officer, sensitive to the needs of others and an able administrator.

Harris served on Carters Cabinet until he was defeated in the 1980 presidential election. In 1982 she made an unsuccessful run for the mayorship of Washington, DC, losing to incumbent Marion S. Barry in the Democratic primary. Political observers indicated that Harris failed to gain the support of lower-income blacks during the race and was often portrayed as a candidate for middle-class blacks and whites. I looked at the nations capital and saw that it was not living up to its potential, Boyd quoted her as saying on her decision to run for mayor. Seventy percent of us here are black. This is seen as a black town. But its not working well. Undefeated by her loss, Harris returned to law in 1983, becoming a professor at George Washington University, a position she held until her death from cancer in 1985.



Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1991.


New Republic, September 20, 1982.

New York Post, June 6, 1965.

New York Times, March 24, 1985.

Michael E. Mueller

Patricia Roberts Harris

views updated May 17 2018

Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985) became the first African American woman in the Cabinet when President Jimmy Carter appointed her secretary of housing and urban development in 1977.

Born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois, to working class parents, Patricia Roberts Harris exemplified a true American success story. Educated in the Chicago public schools, Harris attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude in 1945. While at Howard, she served as vice-president of a student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and led a demonstration which helped integrate a white restaurant located in a black section of Washington.

After graduation Harris returned to Chicago and pursued graduate studies in industrial relations at the University of Chicago. During this time she also worked as program director of the local Young Women's Christian Association. In 1949 she journeyed back to Washington and enrolled in American University for further graduate study. Along with her education, Harris kept busy as assistant director of the American Council of Human Rights and, after 1953, as executive director of Delta Sigma Theta, an African American sorority. She kept that position until 1959, when she entered the George Washington University Law School, partially because of the urging of William Beasley Harris, a Washington attorney whom she married in 1955. Patricia Harris graduated first in her class in 1960 and took a position as attorney with the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice. After serving there for two years she joined Howard University as assistant professor and associate dean of the law school. While at Howard, President John Kennedy appointed her chairperson of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, an unpaid position to create and coordinate support from women's groups for a new civil rights bill.

The hard work and loyalty of this life-long Democrat paid off when she was asked to second the presidential nomination of Lyndon Johnson at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Later that year the president named Harris to the 13-member Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico. Impressed with her diplomatic skills, Johnson appointed Harris the first female African American ambassador in U.S. history when he made her ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965.

After serving there two years Harris returned to Howard and eventually became the first female African American chosen dean of a law school. At the same time she served as the first U.S. African American delegate to the United Nations. She left Howard in 1969 in protest against what she felt was a lack of support from the university's president for her strong stand against protesting students. Following her departure she joined the law firm of Freed, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Kampelman. Besides practicing corporate law, she served on the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank, I.B.M., and Scott Paper. Throughout this period she remained active in Democratic politics. Her star rose rapidly, and her fellow Democrats selected her permanent chairperson of the powerful Credentials Committee for the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

When the Democrats won the presidency in 1976, President Jimmy Carter named Harris secretary of housing and urban development. Although the appointment of this African American woman to a cabinet post proved controversial, much of the concern came from liberals who feared her lack of experience in housing and her close connection with the "establishment." During her confirmation hearing came the famous exchange between Sen. William Proxmire and Harris. Proxmire questioned whether Harris had empathy for the poor and disadvantaged. "Senator, " she replied, "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 am a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. … If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts may end up being part of the system."

Once installed in office, Harris quickly dispelled doubts about her commitment. A fighter characterized by some as self-righteous, brittle, and excessively partisan, Harris breathed new life into a disorganized and demoralized agency of 16, 000 workers. Not only did she demand excellence from those under her, but she lobbied hard and successfully for additional funding from Congress. As a result, the number of subsidized housing starts quadrupled under her tenure. Even more important, she helped reshape the focus of the department. A staunch supporter of housing rehabilitation, Harris funneled millions of dollars into upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods rather than wiping them out through slum clearance. For example, she pushed a Neighborhood Strategy Program that subsidized the renovation of apartments in deteriorated areas. In addition, she expanded the Urban Homesteading Plan and initiated Urban Development Action Grants to lure businesses into blighted areas. Although she ultimately wanted to replace public housing by some type of voucher system so as to provide the poor with more choice for housing, she poured millions of dollars into renovating deteriorating projects throughout the nation.

For her successful efforts, President Carter appointed Harris to the largest cabinet post, Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), in 1979. Her most important work there was the protection of social programs during a period of budget cutting. When Congress created a separate education department in 1980, Harris became the first secretary of health and human services.

Although swept out of office by the Reagan landslide in 1980, Harris remained active in politics. In 1982, she ran for mayor of Washington, but lost to incumbant Mayor Marion Barry in the primary. After her unsuccessful bid, she returned to her position as professor of law at George Washington University Law Center. Harris died of cancer on March 23, 1985, five months after the death of her husband of 29 years.

Further Reading

Little has been written about Harris. One of the better analyses of her early tenure in office is found in Herman Nickel, "Carter's Cactus Flower at HUD, " Fortune (November 1978). For an example of Patricia Harris' fighting spirit while at HUD, see Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., and David deF. Whitman, The President as Policymaker: Jimmy Carter and Welfare Reform (1981). □

Harris, Patricia Roberts

views updated May 29 2018

Harris, Patricia Roberts

May 31, 1924
March 23, 1985

Educator, lawyer, and politician Patricia Roberts was born in the blue-collar town of Mattoon, Illinois, where her father was a Pullman porter. She attended high school in Chicago and then enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She became active in civil rights causes at Howard, participating in one of the nation's first student sit-ins at a segregated Washington cafeteria and by serving as the vice chairman of a student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

After graduating in 1945, Roberts returned to Chicago, where she briefly attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and worked as program director at the Chicago Young Women's Christian Association. In 1949 she returned to Washington and accepted a position as the assistant director of the American Council on Human Rights. In 1953 she became executive director of Delta Sigma Theta, a black sorority, and two years later, she married Washington lawyer William Beasley Harris.

Patricia Roberts Harris entered George Washington Law School in 1957. Upon graduation in 1960 she accepted a position as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. The following year she joined the Howard University Law School faculty, where she also served as the associate dean of students. In 1963, with the support of the Kennedy administration, Harris was chosen to cochair the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, a clearinghouse and coordinating committee for a wide range of national women's organizations. She also served on the District of Columbia advisory committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

In 1965 Harris became the first African-American woman to hold an ambassadorship when she was appointed envoy to Luxembourg. She held the post until September 1967, when she rejoined the faculty at Howard University. In 1969 she was appointed dean of Howard Law School, becoming the first black woman to head a law school, but her tenure lasted only thirty days. Caught between disputes with the faculty and the president of the university over student protests, Harris resigned.

Harris then accepted a position with a private law firmFried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Kampelmanand also held a number of positions in the Democratic Party during the 1970s, such as the temporary chairmanship of the credentials committee. Harris became the first black woman cabinet member when she was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1976. She held the job for two years, and in 1979 she became secretary of health, education, and welfare (renamed the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980), serving until 1981.

In 1982 Harris ran for mayor of Washington, D.C. Running against Marion S. Barry in the Democratic primary, she lost a bitter contest in which she was depicted as an elitist who could not identify with the city's poorer blacks. She spent her remaining years as a professor at George Washington National Law Center before her death in 1985.

See also Barry, Marion; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Politics in the United States; United States Commission on Civil Rights


Boyd, Gerald M. "Patricia R. Harris, Carter Aide, Dies." New York Times (March 1985): 366367.

Greenfield, Meg. "The Brief Saga of Dean Harris." Washington Post (March 23, 1969): C1, C5.

Harris, Patricia Roberts. Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

james bradley (1996)

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