Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia R. Harris official portrait.jpg
1st United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
In office
May 4, 1980 – January 20, 1981
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byHerself (Health, Education, and Welfare)
Succeeded byRichard Schweiker
13th United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
In office
August 3, 1979 – May 4, 1980
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byJoseph A. Califano Jr.
Succeeded byHerself (Health and Human Services)
Shirley Hufstedler (Education)
6th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
In office
January 23, 1977 – September 10, 1979
PresidentJimmy Carter
Preceded byCarla Anderson Hills
Succeeded byMoon Landrieu
United States Ambassador to Luxembourg
In office
September 7, 1965 – September 22, 1967
PresidentLyndon B. Johnson
Preceded byWilliam R. Rivkin
Succeeded byGeorge J. Feldman
Personal details
Patricia Roberts

(1924-05-31)May 31, 1924
Mattoon, Illinois, U.S.
DiedMarch 23, 1985(1985-03-23) (aged 60)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
William Harris (m. 1955⁠–⁠1984)
EducationHoward University (BA)
University of Chicago
American University (MS)
George Washington University (JD)

Patricia Roberts Harris (May 31, 1924 – March 23, 1985) served in the American administration of President Jimmy Carter as United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (which was renamed the Secretary of Health and Human Services during her tenure). She was the first African American woman to serve in the United States Cabinet, and the first to enter the line of succession to the Presidency. She previously served as United States Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the first African-American woman to represent the United States as an ambassador.[1]

Early life[edit]

Roberts was born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois,[2] the daughter of railroad dining car waiter Bert Fitzgerald Roberts and Hildren Brodie (née Johnson).[citation needed] Patricia had one younger brother, Malcolm, known to his family as Mickey.[3] Her parents separated when she was 6 years old.[3] She was then raised primarily by her mother and grandmother.[3]

She graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in 1945.[4] While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa and served as Vice Chairman of the Howard University chapter of the NAACP.[5] In 1943, she participated in one of the nation's first lunch counter sit-ins.[6][3] She did postgraduate work in industrial relations at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1949 and at American University in 1949.[7]

She worked as the Assistant Director of the American Council on Human Rights until 1953. There she met William Beasley Harris, a member of the Howard law faculty; they were married on September 1, 1955. She was the first national executive director of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, of which she was a member.[8] Roberts' was beginning to pursue a career in education, but saw limited opportunity because of segregation.[3] Her husband encouraged her to go to law school.[3] Roberts received her J.D. from the George Washington University National Law Center in 1960, ranking number one out of a class of ninety-four students.[6]


Harris worked briefly for the U.S. Department of Justice[3] Her first position with the U.S. government was in 1960 as an attorney in the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice. There she met and struck up a friendship with Robert Kennedy, the new attorney general. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her co-chairman of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights.

In 1961, Harris returned to her alma mater, Howard University, as an associate dean of students and law lecturer at Howard's law school. In 1963 she was elevated to a full professorship.

In 1964, Harris was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from the District of Columbia. She worked in Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign and seconded his nomination at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Soon after his victory, President Johnson appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1965 to 1967. She was the first African American woman named as an American envoy. She said, "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."[9]

She was named Dean of Howard University's School of Law in 1969, which was another first for a black woman.[10] She resigned a month later as Dean of Howard University's School of Law when Howard University President James E. Cheek refused to support her strong stand against student protests.[11] Following her service as Dean of Howard's School of Law, she joined Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, one of Washington, D.C.'s most prestigious law firms.

Patricia Harris in her swearing-in ceremony (in 1965) to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

In 1971, Harris was named to the board of directors of IBM. In addition, she served on the boards of Scott Paper Co. and Chase Manhattan Bank.[12]

She continued making an impact on the Democratic Party when, in 1972, she was appointed chairman of the credentials committee[6] and a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee in 1973. A testimony to her effectiveness and her commitment to excellence came when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to two cabinet-level posts during his administration.

Cabinet Secretary[edit]

Harris was appointed to the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter when he took office in 1977. At her confirmation hearing, Senator William Proxmire questioned whether Harris came from a background of too much wealth and power to be an effective Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Harris responded "I am a black woman, the daughter of a Pullman (railroad) car waiter. I am a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house 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."[13] Once confirmed, Harris became the first African American woman to enter the Presidential line of succession, at number 13. Between 1977 and 1979 she served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),[4] and in 1979, she became Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, the largest Cabinet agency.[13]

Secretary of H.U.D. Patricia Harris, Jimmy Carter and New York Mayor Abraham Beame tour the South Bronx. - NARA - 176392

After the Department of Education Organization Act came into force on May 4, 1980, the educations functions of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare were transferred to the Department of Education. Harris remained as Secretary of the renamed Department of Health and Human Services until Carter left office in 1981. Because the department had merely changed names, as opposed to disbanding with new department being created, she did not face Senate confirmation again after the change.


Harris unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of Washington, D.C. in 1982, losing the September 14 primary election to incumbent mayor Marion Barry .That year, she was appointed a full-time professor at the George Washington National Law Center.[6]

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1967, Lord Snowdon photographed Harris for Vogue at the United Nations.[3] In her spare time, Harris enjoyed cooking and baking.[3]

Patricia married William Beasley Harris in 1955 after only three months of dating.[3] Her husband William died in November 1984.[6] She died of breast cancer at age 60 on March 23, 1985.[6] She was interred at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

In 2003, Harris was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[14]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ DeLaat, Jacqueline (2000). "Harris, Patricia Roberts". Women in World History, Vol. 7: Harr-I. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications. pp. 14–17. ISBN 0-7876-4066-2.
  2. ^ Thompson, Kathleen (1994). "Harris, Patricia Roberts (1924–1985)". Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 539–540. ISBN 0-253-32774-1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pianin, Eric (September 7, 1982). "Patricia Harris: A Life of Striving To Be a Champion". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Bracks, Lean'tin (2012). African American Almanac: 400 Years of Triumph, Courage and Excellence. Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press. pp. 75. ISBN 9781578593231.
  5. ^ Taylor, Erica; Show, The Tom Joyner Morning. "Little Known Black History Fact: Patricia Roberts Harris". Black America Web. Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Boyd, Gerald M. (March 24, 1985). "Patricia R. Harris, Carter Aide, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  7. ^ American Women Managers and Administrators
  8. ^ Notable Deltas Archived October 13, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Patricia Roberts Harris". Archived from the original on July 28, 2016. Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  10. ^ "Patricia Roberts Harris Facts, information, pictures | articles about Patricia Roberts Harris". Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  11. ^ "Harris, Patricia Roberts (1924-1985) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  12. ^ "". Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  13. ^ a b Press, Associated (March 24, 1985). "Patricia Roberts Harris Dies of Cancer". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved February 19, 2017.
  14. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Patricia Roberts Harris

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
William Rivkin
United States Ambassador to Luxembourg
Succeeded by
George Feldman
Political offices
Preceded by
Carla Hills
United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Succeeded by
Moon Landrieu
Preceded by
Joseph Califano
United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
Succeeded by
as United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
Succeeded by
Shirley Hufstedler
as United States Secretary of Education
Preceded by
as United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
Succeeded by
Richard Schweiker