Patricia Roberts Harris: The Woman of Firsts

By Deborah O’Rell Patricia Roberts Harris: Lawyer, political adviser, activist and wife

It appears little has been written about this woman of firsts.

Born in 1924 to working class parents, her father a dining car waiter, and attended Chicago public schools. She went on the attend Howard University in Washington, DC. There she led one of the first demonstrations which helped lead to the integration of a white restaurant located in a mostly black neighborhood.

She entered George Washington University Law School and graduated first in her class of 94 in 1960. She took a job as attorney with the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice.

After serving there two years as Ambassador to Luxembourg, Harris returned to Howard University 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.

In 1976, 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.”

In 1979, Carter then 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. The number of subsidized housing starts quadrupled under her tenure. Even more important, she helped reshape the focus of the department. A believer 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.

When Congress created a separate education department in 1980, Harris became the first secretary of health and human services.