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About Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris

May 31, 1924 - March 23, 1985

Born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois, Patricia Roberts Harris was raised by her mother after her father left. An excellent student, Harris earned a scholarship to Howard University in 1941. At Howard, Harris served as vice chairman of the university’s student branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participated in the organization’s civil rights efforts. Harris graduated from Howard in 1945 with honors and continued her education at the University of Chicago, where she studied industrial relations.

In the 1950s, Harris worked at Delta Sigma Theta, a national African-American sorority, until she was encouraged by her husband-lawyer, William Beasley Harris, to pursue a career in law. Harris attended George Washington University’s National Law Center, graduating in 1960 as the top student in her class.

After graduating, Harris spent a year with the Department of Justice. She then returned to Howard University as a lecturer and later a professor. Outside of class, Harris continued to be an activist for many social causes. Her involvement led to her appointment by President John F. Kennedy to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Harris U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. She held the position for two years and then returned to her teaching at Howard. In 1969, she became the dean of the law school at Howard, becoming the first African-American woman to do so.

In 1970, Harris became a corporate attorney at a large law firm. She continued to serve on the boards of such companies as IBM, Scott Paper Company and Chase Manhattan Bank, hoping to encourage corporations to help foster social change. In 1977, Harris was selected by President Jimmy Carter for his Cabinet as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, making HUD the first Cabinet department to be headed by an African-American woman and Harris the first African-American woman to hold a Cabinet post. In this position, Harris called for increases in assistance to the poor and putting a stop to discriminatory housing and employment practices—causes she had championed for many years previously.

Harris reshaped the agency and worked hard to rebuild urban neighborhoods and encourage businesses to invest in troubled areas. Based on her success at HUD, Carter made Harris the secretary of what is now known as health and human services. Harris left the position after Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.

Harris ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., but dropped out of the race after losing the Democratic primary to incumbent Marion Barry. She then left politics and returned to teaching. Harris served as a professor at George Washington University Law School until the time of her death from breast cancer on March 23, 1985.

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