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Attorney, Ambassador, and Cabinet Member
"I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the 'first Negro woman' because it implies we were not considered before."
FEBRUARY 23, 2021: A stamp printed in USA shows Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985), First Black Woman Cabinet Secretary, Black Heritage Series, 2000. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock and Olga Popova.
African Americans have displayed excellence throughout American history.
A woman who personifies this legacy is Patricia Roberts Harris.
The trailblazer was born in a sleepy town in 1924 Illinois. Today, Mattoon only has a population of roughly 16,000. The town is also known for opening a Kuehne Manufacturing plant to the south of the city in 1932 and helped produce the famed dinette sets of the midcentury.
Patricia Roberts Harris was the daughter of a dining car waiter but, was raised primarily by her mother and grandmother upon her family’s separation. Still, Harris’ resolve did not waiver.
She earned a spot at the prestigious Howard University where she graduated summa cum laude in 1945. Her work in public service was already beginning. She served as Vice Chairman of the Howard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples. She also participated in some of the first lunch counter sit-ins in 1943.
After doing graduate level work in the late 1940s at the University of Chicago, Harris transferred to American University in 1949. Being in Washington D.C. certainly helped her involvement in the Civil Rights work happening at the time.
Still, Harris is human like the rest of us (despite her seeming superhuman). She married in the 1950s and pursued a career in education despite the barriers of segregation. By 1960, Harris was convinced by her husband to go into law. She passed the bar exam and earned her Juris Doctor from the George Washington University National Law Center in the same year.
She was ranked number one of ninety-four in her program.
With her experiences from the University of Chicago, American University, and George Washington University, Patricia Roberts Harris used her law credentials to begin her career in government. She even struck up a kinship with the Democrat attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy.
By the early 1960s, her role in the Department of Justice was within the “appeals and research” section of the Criminal Division. At the time, civil rights offenses in the segregated south were increasingly on the federal government’s radar. Including, violent hate crimes directed at Civil Rights workers.
Harris was also elevated to co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights while she was lecturing (and eventually a full professor) at Howard University. This historically Black college and university is one of the preeminent pipelines for young minds and hearts on a mission to display Black excellence to a larger nation apoplectic towards acknowledging that in the 1960s.
This wouldn’t be the last time Patricia Roberts was called on by a United States president. After working in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidential campaign and as a delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Harris was appointed to be the Ambassador to Luxembourg. She was the first African American woman to be named a U.S. envoy. Johnson also made her an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.
Then, Richard Nixon got elected.
So, during the “Peace with Honor” and Watergate years, Harris served as Dean of Howard University’s School of Law and later joined one of Washington D.C’s most prestigious law firms: Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Harris became a member of what some would consider the corporate elite during the 1970s. She sat on the board of International Business Machines, Scott Paper, National Bank of Washington, and Chase Manhattan Bank.
When she was appointed to Chase Manhattan Bank’s board, Harris said:
The demands on the small pool of blacks allowed to develop in the last 300 years is too great. What has to happen is that this pool must be increased, and that's something that big corporations can help to do. I'm a first on many boards, but I'm not going to be content to remain the only black, or the only woman.
These connections would be revisited in Harris’ Senate confirmation when she was called to serve another president, Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Harris was now scrutinized by leaders of multiple communities (including some Black Americans) for her corporate work. In her confirmation hearing to be the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Senator William Proxmire (a notable Wisconsin populist and an early champion of campaign finance reform) wondered if she was capable of understanding the plight of struggling Americans.
Senator, 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 waiter … a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn't 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 I have forgotten that, you are wrong … 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.
Harris went on to develop a Neighborhood Strategy Program during her time as cabinet secretary. It’s function was to help deteriorated apartments have easier access to federal subsidies for renovations. Harris also initiated Urban Development Action Grants, which aimed to attract businesses into areas facing urban decline; a major problem of the 1970s. Harris aimed to shift the focus from tearing down slums to rebuilding inner city neighborhoods.
The impacts of redlining on African American city life to this day:
Patricia Roberts Harris was appointed to Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1979. It was the largest cabinet agency at the time. It was split in two while she was at the head. Thus, in 1980, the Department of Education was born. Harris remained cabinet secretary of the new Health and Human Services until President Carter left office.
After the Carter years, Harris went back into academia. She was a full professor at George Washington University until her death in 1985.
Patricia Roberts Harris saw our society transform from one that is comfortable with the public lynching of racial and religious minorities into a society yearning for dynamism and global power while also struggling to protrude social, cultural, and religious diversity.
She is a major inspiration to our current United Nations Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.