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Sat, 05.31.1924

Patricia Roberts Harris, Lawyer, and Diplomat born

Patricia R. Harris

*Patricia Roberts Harris was born on this date in 1924. She was a Black lawyer, ambassador, political activist, and educator.

Born in Mattoon, Illinois, Patricia Roberts was the daughter of Bert Fitzgerald Roberts, a Pullman car waiter, and Hildren Brodie Johnson, a schoolteacher.  She attended schools in Chicago and graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in 1945. She did postgraduate work at the University of Chicago and at American University in 1949. Until 1953, she worked as Assistant Director of the American Council on Human Rights.

While at Howard, she met William Beasley Harris, a member of the Howard law faculty, they were married in 1955.  She earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University in 1960. Graduating number one out of a class of 94, she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Attorney Harris worked briefly for the U.S. Department of Justice before returning, in 1961, to Howard University as an associate dean of students and law lecturer at their law school. In 1963, she was elevated to a full professorship, and in 1969; she was named Dean of Howard University's School of Law.

Even while she was a student at Howard, she was interested in politics.  She parlayed her interest in political activism into a career path that would bring her to the attention of political leaders. Harris was the first African American woman to serve as an Ambassador, representing the U.S. in Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Harris was appointed to the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter upon his election in 1977. She thus became the first African American woman to enter the line of succession, at number 13.

Between 1977 and 1979, she served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); in 1979, she served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. After the Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law in 1979, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was divided into separate departments of Health and Human Services and Education.  Harris then served as the first Secretary of Health and Human Services until Carter left office in 1981.

One year later, she unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Washington, D.C.  In 1982, Harris was a professor at the George Washington National Law Center, a position she held until her death from breast cancer on March 23, 1985, at 60.

To Become a Lawyer


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