Harris, Patricia Roberts (31 May 1924-23 Mar. 1985), cabinet
member and ambassador, was born in Mattoon, Illinois, the daughter
of Bert Fitzgerald Roberts, a Pullman car waiter, and Hildren
Brodie Johnson, a schoolteacher. After graduating from a Chicago
high school, she entered Howard University, from which she was
graduated, summa cum laude, with an A.B. in 1945. In 1943, while
a student at Howard, she joined the nascent civil rights movement
and participated in a sit-in to desegregate a cafeteria lunch
counter in Washington, D.C. Roberts did graduate work at the
University of Chicago. In 1946, while attending graduate school,
she was also program director of the local YWCA. In 1949 she
returned to Washington, D.C., where she pursued further graduate
study at the American University until 1950. From 1949 to 1953
she served as an assistant director in the Civil Rights Agency
of the American Council on Human Rights. Married in 1955 to attorney
William B. Harris, who encouraged her to enter law school (the
marriage was childless), she earned a J.D. degree at the George
Washington University Law Center in 1960. Recognized early in
her youth as an outstanding and diligent student, Harris graduated
first out of ninety-four in her class.
In 1960 Harris moved to the Department of Justice, where she
worked for a year as a trial attorney in the Appeals and Research
Section of the Criminal Division. She left the Justice Department
in order to become a member of the faculty of Howard University
Law School, eventually reaching the rank of associate professor.
It was that position she left in 1965, when President Lyndon
B. Johnson named her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Senate confirmation
made her the first African-American woman to serve in an ambassadorial
post. After leaving the diplomatic corps in 1967, Harris returned
to Howard University as a full professor, serving until 1969,
when, as a result of student and faculty conflicts, she resigned
to enter private practice. She remained active in the civil rights
movement and served on the executive board of the NAACP Legal
Defense Fund from 1967 to 1977.
Having served in professional and voluntary positions at the
national and local levels to promote adequate and safe housing
and shelter for the poor, including chair of the Housing Committee
of the Washington Urban League (1956-1960), vice president of
the Brookland Civic Association (1962-1965), and member of the
board of directors of the American Council on Human Rights, Harris
was nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to become secretary
of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). During
her Senate confirmation hearing before the Committee on Banking,
Housing, and Urban Affairs, on 10 January 1977, she challenged
Senator William Proxmire's suggestion that she might not be attuned
to the problems of the poor. Harris responded: 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. Once confirmed by the Senate, Harris
brought control and order to the department that had been criticized
for ineffective, inefficient, and inconsistent management. Although
some characterized her as having an abrasive manner, Harris proved
to be hardworking and focused, determined to address the problems
of the poor. She brought with her experience in providing minorities
improved access to better housing, a higher standard of living,
and greater economic opportunities. In particular she directed
an effort to prevent discrimination against women who applied
for mortgage loans.
When President Carter reshuffled his cabinet in the summer of
1979, Harris left HUD and was named secretary of Health, Education,
and Welfare (HEW). Soon after she was confirmed by the Senate,
HEW became the Department of Health and Human Services, which
Harris directed until the end of the Carter administration.
Harris returned to the practice of law in Washington, D.C.,
in 1981. The following year she ran for mayor of the District
of Columbia but lost the race to Marion S. Barry, Jr., having
failed to convince voters that the city needed an administrator
rather than a politician. In the end, however, her identification
as a member of the middle class contributed to her defeat.
Harris was a member of numerous organizations, including Phi
Beta Kappa, and was the recipient of many awards and honorary
degrees, and the author of a large number of articles and publications.
She was recognized as a skilled, competent, and effective leader
in both the public and the private arena. She died of cancer
in Washington, D.C.
Harris's published writings include "Law and Moral Issues,"
Journal of Religious Thought (1964), "To Fill the Gap," Many
Shades of Black, ed. Stanton L. Wormley and Lewis H. Fenderson
(1969), and "Problems and Solutions in Achieving Equality for
Women," in Women in Higher Education, ed. W. Todd Furniss and
Patricia Albjerg Graham (1974). Biographical information on Harris
is scant. The publications of the Senate hearings include some
biographical and educational information and list the honors
and awards she received, her membership in organizations, and
her publications. See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Banking,
Housing, and Urban Affairs, Nomination of Patricia Roberts Harris,
95th Cong., 1st sess., 10 Jan. 1977; and U.S. Congress, Senate,
Committee on Finance, Nomination of Patricia Harris, 96th Cong.,
1st sess., 25 and 26 July 1979. Also see Homer L. Calkin, Women
in the Department of State: Their Role in American Foreign Affairs
(1978). An obituary is in the New York Times, 23 Mar. 1985.
Judith R. Johnson
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Judith R. Johnson. "Harris, Patricia Roberts";
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