Today we honor and celebrate a woman who dedicated her life to social justice and broke the color barrier as the first African-American woman U.S. ambassador, U.S. Cabinet Secretary, and law school Dean: Patricia Roberts Harris. Born in Illinois in 1924, she was committed to her studies and graduated summa cum laude from Howard University. During her time there she also participated in one of the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins, whetting her appetite for change and social justice. She worked for some years as the Assistant Director of the American Council on Human Rights, a position which she left to attend law school at George Washington University. She graduated first in her class.
She served briefly in the U.S. Department of Justice where she began a friendship with the new U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. She returned to Howard University and became a professor at its law school. In 1963, President Kennedy appointed her co-chairman of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. She also worked in local D.C. Democratic politics, becoming a delegate to the 1964 convention and working on President Johnson’s re-election campaign (She sounds like an ideal social worker to me). After he won a return to office, he promptly appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg, making her the first African-American woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador.
She served until 1967 and then returned to Howard, where she was made Dean of the law school in 1969, the first African-American woman to achieve such a post at any U.S. University. In 1972 she left to joint a private D.C. law firm; during this time she also served as a director at IBM. She also continued to work for the Democratic National Committee, including a stint as chair of the credentials committee. In 1977, President Carter appointed her as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Coming in at #13 in Presidential succession, she was the first African-American woman to be in line for the presidency and the first to serve as a Cabinet Secretary.
During her Senate confirmation hearings, one Senator questioned whether a corporate lawyer was well suited to serve the people who most needed HUD’s services. Famous for her blunt, no-nonsense style, she replied:
I am one of them. 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!
Nice! I love the way she confronts micro-aggressions. After two years, she was appointed Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare a position which became Secretary of Health and Human Services during her tenure. She left the Cabinet when Carter was defeated for re-election. She returned to law and in 1982 was appointed a full-time professor at the George Washington National Law Center, a position she served in until her death from breast cancer in 1985 at the age of 60.
Sometimes described as blunt and tough, Harris demanded the best from her staff and herself during her public service. She was an able administrator who reshaped HUD, which was in disarray when she took over the post. Harris worked hard to rebuild urban neighborhoods and to encourage businesses to invest in troubled areas. Whether working for the government or private firms, she also maintained her engagement in social justice contributing time and money to many causes and continuing a life-long involvement with the NAACP. A pioneer in many ways, Harris (a civil rights heroine) is a wonderful role model for the next generation of people striving for social justice.