Patricia Roberts Harris lived a life of firsts. First female dean of the Howard University law school. First African-American woman to serve as an ambassador. First African-American female Cabinet secretary.
Despite her groundbreaking career, Harris kept things in stark perspective.
“I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier,” Harris said upon her selection as US Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. “But also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before.”
Harris grew up in Illinois and attended Howard University in Washington, DC. She later attended law school at George Washington University, where she graduated first in her class. Her career was expansive, taking her from the Chicago Young Women’s Christian Association to the American Council for Human Rights, corporate law and the Department of Justice.
She was also recognized by several Democratic presidents. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy selected her to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Human Rights. Just two years later, Johnson offered her the envoy position in Luxembourg.
President Jimmy Carter would offer her two more opportunities to make history.
In 1977, Carter nominated Harris as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Her confirmation hearing turned contentious when a senator asked her if she would be able to look out for the well-being of Americans in need of HUD services.
“You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter,” Harris responded. “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.”
With a voice vote in the Senate, Harris became the first African-American female Cabinet secretary, which also put her in the line of presidential succession. During that time, she focused on rehabilitating housing projects. Carter later nominated Harris to be secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. When HEW became the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980, Harris became its first secretary.
After the Carter administration, Harris ran a mayoral campaign in Washington, DC in 1982. She lost to Marion Barry, who made a name for himself for a number of reasons. Harris died of cancer in 1985 at age 60.