Harris, Patricia Roberts (1924–1985)

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Harris, Patricia Roberts (1924–1985)

Noted attorney and public servant, first African-American woman to achieve ambassadorial rank, occupant of two Cabinet-level positions in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, and dean of Howard University Law School. Born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois; died of cancer on March 23, 1985; daughter of Bert Roberts (a railroad waiter) and Chiquita Roberts; spent her early years in Mattoon and Chicago, Illinois, and upon graduation from

high school had numerous offers of college scholarships; attended Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and graduated summa cum laude; elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1945; completed graduate work in industrial relations at the University of Chicago; received her J.. degree from George Washington University Law School, 1960; married William Beasley Harris (a Washington attorney), in 1955; no children.

Raised in Illinois; active in civil-rights campaigns (1940s–1960s); appointed ambassador to Luxemburg (1965); served as professor of law and later dean of the Law School at Howard University; served as secretaryof Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and later as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration; held a variety of Democratic Party positions, including temporary chair of the credentials committee (1972); ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the District of Columbia (1982); served as full-time professor at George Washington National Law Center.

Patricia Roberts Harris held two Cabinet positions in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, was the first black woman to serve as an ambassador, and served as dean of Howard Law School. Known for her political savvy, she was also regarded as a tough, productive administrator who had a no-nonsense, demanding management style.

Born Patricia Roberts on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois, she counted African-American slaves, Delaware and Cherokee Indians, and English and Irish settlers among her ancestors. Her African-American forebears had been moved from Virginia to Illinois in the early part of the 19th century; there, they bought their freedom through work. Her father was a diningcar waiter for the Illinois Central Railroad, a common profession for African-Americans in the 1920s, and Harris was raised in Mattoon and Chicago.

"I grew up in the Midwest with an awareness of the lack of real relevance of race," said Harris. When she graduated from high school, she had five college scholarships from which to choose and selected the largely black Howard University in Washington, D.C. While there, Harris was concerned with the problems of racial prejudice and was part of the early civilrights movement. She was vice chair of the student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and joined with other students in an early sit-in demonstration at the Little Palace Cafeteria, a white restaurant located in the heart of a black section of Washington that would not serve blacks. Harris developed the belief that nonviolent action was the best means of fighting discrimination, a belief that she held throughout her life, causing criticism from some quarters for her lack of militancy on civil-rights issues.

Upon completion of her summa cum laude degree at Howard in 1945, Harris returned to Illinois to study industrial relations for two years at the University of Chicago. In the next several years, she held a variety of administrative posts in Chicago and Washington: she was a program director for the YWCA, an assistant director for the American Council on Human Rights, and an executive director of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta.

In 1955, Patricia Roberts married Washington attorney William Beasley Harris, then a member of the faculty of Howard Law School. A few years later, Harris had her own law degree. "If there is one thing which gives me satisfaction," she noted, "it is law, the last refuge of the generalist, of which there are too few these days." While at George Washington University School of Law, she was honored with the post of associate editor of the George Washington Law Review and was awarded the John Bell Larner Prize as the first scholar in her class.

For the next two years, Harris held her first government position, as an attorney in the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice. She resigned for a post at Howard Law School, where she served for a number of years as dean and as a professor of law. Her courses focused on constitutional law and government regulation of business.

In July 1963, Lyndon Johnson tapped Harris for her first presidential appointment, naming her co-chair of the National Women's Committee for civil rights. In this capacity, Harris helped coordinate activities of nearly one-hundred national women's organizations on behalf of civil-rights causes, such as peaceful desegregation. The committee stressed the establishment of avenues of communication between the races. Harris worked tirelessly in this unpaid position, convinced that peaceful demonstrations and democratic process could secure rights for African-Americans. Major civil-rights legislation was before Congress at this time, so the efforts of this committee were significant. In 1964, Johnson appointed Harris to the Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico, largely because of her expertise in constitutional law.

On May 19, 1965, Johnson again recognized Harris' increasing leadership abilities, selecting her to replace William R. Rivkin as ambassador to Luxemburg, an appointment that won easy Senate confirmation. Patricia Harris was the nation's first black woman to serve as an ambassador. "I feel deeply proud and grateful the President chose me to knock down this barrier," she told the press, "but also a little sad about being 'the first Negro woman' because it implies we were not considered before." In assuming her ambassadorship, Harris resigned positions in many organizations concerned with civil liberties, welfare, and other community problems, especially in the Washington, D.C., area. She was able, however, to retain her position on the Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico.

During the early 1970s, Harris returned to private life, resuming her career as a law school professor. After the election of Jimmy Carter, in 1976, she was again chosen for an executive leadership position, this time at the Cabinet level. Carter nominated her as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), based on her long record of involvement with urban issues and problems.

Ironically, it was at this time that Harris had to defend herself against suggestions that she was out of touch with the mainstream of black America, for which she was now seen as a spokesperson in government circles. The New York Times reported that at hearings before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in 1977 she "bristled at the suggestion by Senator William Proxmire that she might not be able to defend the interests of the poor. 'I am one of them,' she said passionately. 'You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining-car worker. I am a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia.'" Confirmed as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, she served in that post until she was appointed secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. When this department became the Department of Health and Human Services in a governmental reorganization, Harris became its first secretary.

Patricia Roberts Harris was known as a blunt executive, with no fear of confronting either her subordinates or superiors in the administration. Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served as Carter's domestic policy advisor, noted that "Mrs. Harris typically got what she wanted in bureaucratic battles in the Carter Administration." Jimmy Carter, said Eizenstat, could not turn her down.

Returning to the private sphere after Carter's defeat in 1980, Harris ran for mayor of the District of Columbia two years later. "I looked at the nation's capital and saw that it was not living up to its potential," she told a Washington Post interviewer. "Seventy percent of us here are black. This is seen as a black town. But it's not working well." In a bitter campaign that divided black groups in the city, Harris was defeated by Marion S. Barry, Jr. She was viewed as the candidate of middle-class blacks and whites, while Barry, a civil-rights activist, came to be seen as the candidate of lower-income blacks. Harris concluded her career as a full-time professor of law at the George Washington National Law Center from 1983 to 1985.

She was a fine lady, and a fine Cabinet Officer, sensitive to the needs of others and an able administrator.

—Jimmy Carter

Patricia Harris, like other black women of her generation, entered professional realms previously barred to women of color. She used her political commitments and legal education as preparation for governmental service under two Democratic presidents. In addition to her distinguished service as a government executive and professor of law, Harris was a lifelong, ardent Democrat who had seconded the presidential nomination of Lyndon Johnson at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She also served in 1964 as an elector for the District of Columbia in Washington's first participation in a national election in the 20th century. She held a variety of Democratic Party positions, including temporary chair of the credentials committee in 1972. Her professionalism earned her the respect of blacks and whites alike, although she did not become involved in the turbulence within the civil-rights movement of her time. Her proficiency in the posts for which she was chosen made it easier for later presidential administrations to select other non-white executives. Patricia Roberts Harris died of cancer on March 23, 1985, not long after the death of her husband.


New York Post. November 29, 1963.

New York Post Magazine. June 6, 1965.

The New York Times. March 24, 1985.

Washington Post. March 31, 1964.

Jacqueline DeLaat , McCoy Professor of Political Science, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio

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