Patricia Roberts Harris was a Black woman of her time. As we honor Black History Month and pay tribute to generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity, Patricia Roberts Harris is an amazing example of a Black woman excelling through a multitude of hardships. Harris grew up in Illinois with her single mother, and she took a keen interest in academics, receiving five scholarship offers to college. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated summa cum laude in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. After graduation, she began graduate studies in industrial relations at the University of Chicago in 1946 and continued her studies at American University. If her academic success up to this point wasn’t enough, she went on to graduate at the top of her class from the George Washington University Law School in 1960. She subsequently was admitted to the District of Columbia bar and admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
However, Harris was more than her academic success; she was dedicated to civil rights and public service. While at Howard, she served in Howard’s college chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and took part in one of the first sit-ins at a whites-only cafeteria. While at American University, she began to work as Assistant Director of the American Council on Human Rights, an organization dedicated to defending and protecting human rights by pushing for anti-discrimination legislation, where she stayed until 1953. Harris was also a member of a historically Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and became the first executive director of the national headquarters, serving from 1953 to 1959. After graduation from law school in 1960, she worked for the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She then returned to Howard University, joining the faculty as a lecturer at the law school and becoming the associate dean of students. In 1963 she became a full professor, and she would later serve as the school’s dean.
Harris’s career continued to propel forward as she began to grab political positions, while remaining focused on advancing civil rights. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her as co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, an umbrella organization of women’s groups in America supporting the advancement of civil rights. Amid her extensive work, from 1962 to 1965, Harris worked with the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union, an ACLU affiliate, that worked to defend and expand civil liberties in the District of Columbia as an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. As Harris continued to pursue politics, in 1964, she was elected as delegate to the Democratic National Convention from the District of Columbia. There, she gave the address seconding the presidential nomination of Lyndon B. Johnson. After winning the presidential election, President Johnson appointed her as Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965, serving until 1967. She became the first African American woman named as an envoy for the United States. Though proud of becoming an ambassador, she was saddened that African American women were never considered before her. In 1969, Harris returned to Howard University School of Law and became the first Black woman to serve as a law school dean.
Harris then joined a prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C., that is now Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where she worked as a corporate attorney, and subsequently became the first Black American woman to sit on a Fortune 500 company’s board of directors in 1971. She firmly believed corporate responsibility could positively influence social change. Harris held her position at the firm until President Jimmy Carter selected her to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1977. She became the first Black woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet. At her confirmation hearing, Senator William Proxmire challenged her and questioned whether she could represent the poor and less fortunate given her status of high prominence. Harris responded that she could never forget the path that brought her to where she was, reminding the senator that just eight years earlier she could not buy a house in certain parts of Washington, D.C., and even though there was respect for achievement and education, she had faced difficulties in attaining them and was still affected by racism. Harris remained active in politics, including serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and ended her career as a full-time law professor at George Washington University. She passed away in 1985 at sixty years old.
Patricia Roberts Harris was a pioneer for the Black community, especially Black women. Although she was the first Black woman to break down these barriers, through her extensive work in civil rights, politics, public health, and law, she ensured that she provided a rich legacy for other Black women.