Patricia Roberts Harris was dedicated to public service, civil rights and the promotion of social justice. A woman of many firsts, she was the first African American woman to serve the nation as Ambassador, the first African American woman to become dean of a law school, and the first African-American woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet.
Patricia Roberts excelled academically and won a scholarship to Howard University, graduating in 1945. She married in 1955, and at her husband’s urging entered law school. She earned her law degree from George Washington University and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
Harris was appointed co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy. She returned to Howard University as an associate Dean of Students and lecturer in the law school and became a full professor in 1963. In 1965, Harris accepted an appointment as Ambassador to Luxemburg. She then served briefly as Dean of Howard Law School in 1969. In 1977, Harris was appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. At her confirmation hearing, she was queried as to her ability to represent the interests of the poor. Her response was:
“I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, daughter of a dining-car worker. I am a Black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago 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 that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”
In 1980, Harris was appointed Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.