This post was written by Katie Hudak Senior Program Associate / Social Media Facilitator at Meridian. It is a part of a blog series highlighting and acknowledging the work and contributions of Black diplomats during Black History Month.
Born and raised in Mattoon, Illinois, Patricia Roberts was a woman of many firsts. At a young age, she showed academic excellence and drive. Earning numerous scholarship offers, Patricia attended Howard University where she graduated cum laude. While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa and served as Vice Chairman of the Howard University chapter of the NAACP. In 1943, she participated in one of the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins. In 1960 she graduated from the law school at George Washington University top of her class and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Harris became an attorney in the criminal division of the Department of Justice in 1960. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Harris co-chairman of the National Women’s Committee of Civil Rights.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed Mrs. Harris ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965, making her the first black woman to be chosen as a United States Ambassador. In 1968, Harris returned to Howard University School of Law, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as Dean of a law school. In 1977, Harris was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the first black woman to enter the presidential line of succession at number 13.
During the confirmation hearings for the cabinet, she was challenged repeatedly by senators who questioned her ability to represent the interests of the poor. At Harris’ confirmation hearing, she was asked would her background prevent her from effectively serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban and Development. Harris responded in testimony to her effectiveness and commitment to excellence:
“I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, the daughter of a Pullman 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.”
After being challenged repeatedly by senators who questioned her ability to represent the interests of the poor during the cabinet hearings, Patricia successfully persuaded her critics and became the first African American woman to direct a Federal department. It was through her commitment to social justice, her brilliance, and her accomplishments she broke many glass ceilings for both African Americans and for women.
As the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and as the first secretary of Health and Human Services, she focused on aiding Americans in need. Harris remained as Secretary of the renamed Department of Health and Human Services until President Carter left office in 1981. Her diligence and commitment to social justice and civil rights throughout her groundbreaking career led to many remarkable accomplishments in the field of public affairs.