Patricia Roberts Harris (1924-1985) became the first African American woman in the Cabinet when President Jimmy Carter appointed her secretary of housing and urban development in 1977.
Born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois, to working class parents, Patricia Roberts Harris exemplified a true American success story. Educated in the Chicago public schools, Harris attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude in 1945. While at Howard, she served as vice-president of a student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and led a demonstration which helped integrate a white restaurant located in a black section of Washington.
After graduation Harris returned to Chicago and pursued graduate studies in industrial relations at the University of Chicago. During this time she also worked as program director of the local Young Women's Christian Association. In 1949 she journeyed back to Washington and enrolled in American University for further graduate study. Along with her education, Harris kept busy as assistant director of the American Council of Human Rights and, after 1953, as executive director of Delta Sigma Theta, an African American sorority. She kept that position until 1959, when she entered the George Washington University Law School, partially because of the urging of William Beasley Harris, a Washington attorney whom she married in 1955. Patricia Harris graduated first in her class in 1960 and took a position as attorney with the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice. After serving there for two years she joined Howard University as assistant professor and associate dean of the law school. While at Howard, President John Kennedy appointed her chairperson of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, an unpaid position to create and coordinate support from women's groups for a new civil rights bill.
The hard work and loyalty of this life-long Democrat paid off when she was asked to second the presidential nomination of Lyndon Johnson at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Later that year the president named Harris to the 13-member Commission on the Status of Puerto Rico. Impressed with her diplomatic skills, Johnson appointed Harris the first female African American ambassador in U.S. history when he made her ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965.
After serving there two years Harris returned to Howard and eventually became the first female African American chosen dean of a law school. At the same time she served as the first U.S. African American delegate to the United Nations. She left Howard in 1969 in protest against what she felt was a lack of support from the university's president for her strong stand against protesting students. Following her departure she joined the law firm of Freed, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Kampelman. Besides practicing corporate law, she served on the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank, I.B.M., and Scott Paper. Throughout this period she remained active in Democratic politics. Her star rose rapidly, and her fellow Democrats selected her permanent chairperson of the powerful Credentials Committee for the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
When the Democrats won the presidency in 1976, President Jimmy Carter named Harris secretary of housing and urban development. Although the appointment of this African American woman to a cabinet post proved controversial, much of the concern came from liberals who feared her lack of experience in housing and her close connection with the "establishment." During her confirmation hearing came the famous exchange between Sen. William Proxmire and Harris. Proxmire questioned whether Harris had empathy for the poor and disadvantaged. "Senator, " she replied, "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 am a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. … 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."
Once installed in office, Harris quickly dispelled doubts about her commitment. A fighter characterized by some as self-righteous, brittle, and excessively partisan, Harris breathed new life into a disorganized and demoralized agency of 16, 000 workers. Not only did she demand excellence from those under her, but she lobbied hard and successfully for additional funding from Congress. As a result, the number of subsidized housing starts quadrupled under her tenure. Even more important, she helped reshape the focus of the department. A staunch supporter of housing rehabilitation, Harris funneled millions of dollars into upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods rather than wiping them out through slum clearance. For example, she pushed a Neighborhood Strategy Program that subsidized the renovation of apartments in deteriorated areas. In addition, she expanded the Urban Homesteading Plan and initiated Urban Development Action Grants to lure businesses into blighted areas. Although she ultimately wanted to replace public housing by some type of voucher system so as to provide the poor with more choice for housing, she poured millions of dollars into renovating deteriorating projects throughout the nation.
For her successful efforts, President Carter appointed Harris to the largest cabinet post, Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), in 1979. Her most important work there was the protection of social programs during a period of budget cutting. When Congress created a separate education department in 1980, Harris became the first secretary of health and human services.
Although swept out of office by the Reagan landslide in 1980, Harris remained active in politics. In 1982, she ran for mayor of Washington, but lost to incumbant Mayor Marion Barry in the primary. After her unsuccessful bid, she returned to her position as professor of law at George Washington University Law Center. Harris died of cancer on March 23, 1985, five months after the death of her husband of 29 years.
Further Reading on Patricia Roberts Harris
Little has been written about Harris. One of the better analyses of her early tenure in office is found in Herman Nickel, "Carter's Cactus Flower at HUD, " Fortune (November 1978). For an example of Patricia Harris' fighting spirit while at HUD, see Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., and David deF. Whitman, The President as Policymaker: Jimmy Carter and Welfare Reform (1981).