Patricia Roberts Harris

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The Honorable
Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia R. Harris official portrait.jpg
13th United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
(Later called United States Secretary of Health and Human Services)[1]
In office
August 3, 1979 – January 20, 1981
President Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Succeeded by Richard S. Schweiker
6th United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
In office
January 23, 1977 – September 10, 1979
President Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Carla A. Hills
Succeeded by Moon Landrieu
Personal details
Born Patricia Roberts
(1924-05-31)May 31, 1924
Mattoon, Illinois, United States
Died March 23, 1985(1985-03-23) (aged 60)
Washington, D.C., United States
Resting place Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., United States
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) William Beasley Harris (m. 1955; wid. 1984)
Alma mater Howard University
George Washington University Law School

Patricia Roberts Harris (May 31, 1924 – March 23, 1985) served in the American administration of President Jimmy Carter as United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (which was renamed the Secretary of Health and Human Services during her tenure). She was the first African American woman to serve in the United States Cabinet, and the first to enter the line of succession to the Presidency. She previously served as United States Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the first African-American woman to represent the United States as an ambassador.[2]

Early life and career

Roberts was born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, Illinois,[3] the daughter of railroad dining car waiter Bert Fitzgerald Roberts and Hildren Brodie (née Johnson). She graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in 1945.[4] While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and she participated in one of the nation's first lunch counter sit-ins in 1943. There she met William Beasley Harris, a member of the Howard law faculty; they were married on September 1, 1955. She did postgraduate work at the University of Chicago and at American University in 1949 Until 1953, she worked as the Assistant Director of the American Council on Human Rights. She was the first national executive director of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which she was a member.[5] Roberts received her J.D. from the George Washington University National Law Center in 1960, ranking number one out of a class of 94 students.

Harris worked briefly for the U.S. Department of Justice before returning to Howard University in 1961 as an associate dean of students and law lecturer at Howard's 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.

Her first position with the U.S. government was as an attorney in the appeals and research section of the criminal division of the Department of Justice in 1960. There she met and struck up a friendship with Robert Kennedy, the new attorney general. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her co-chairman of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights.

In 1964, Harris was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from the District of Columbia. She worked in Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign and seconded his nomination at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Soon after his victory, President Johnson appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1965 to 1967. Following her service as Dean of Howard's School of Law from 1969 to 1972, she joined Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, one of Washington, D.C.'s most prestigious law firms.

Patricia Harris in her swearing-in ceremony (in 1965) to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

In 1971, Harris was named a director of IBM.

She continued making an impact on the Democratic Party when, in 1972, she was appointed chairman of the credentials committee and a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee in 1973. A testimony to her effectiveness and her commitment to excellence came when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to two cabinet-level posts during his administration.

Harris was appointed to the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter when he took office in 1977. She thus became the first African American woman to enter the Presidential line of succession, at number 13. Between 1977 and 1979 she served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),[4] and in 1979, she became Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

After the Department of Education Organization Act came into force on May 4, 1980, the educations functions of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare were transferred to the Department of Education. Harris remained as Secretary of the renamed Department of Health and Human Services until Carter left office in 1981. Because the department had merely changed names, as opposed to disbanding with new department being created, she did not face Senate confirmation again after the change.

Harris unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1982, losing the September 14 primary election that year to incumbent mayor Marion Barry. That year, she was appointed a full-time professor at the George Washington National Law Center, a position she served in until her death from breast cancer, on March 23, 1985. She was interred at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


  1. The name change took effect May 4, 1980.
  2. DeLaat, Jacqueline (2000). "Harris, Patricia Roberts". Women in World History, Vol. 7: Harr-I. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications. pp. 14–17. ISBN 0-7876-4066-2. 
  3. Thompson, Kathleen (1994). "Harris, Patricia Roberts (1924–1985)". Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 539–540. ISBN 0-253-32774-1. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bracks, Lean'tin (2012). African American Almanac: 400 Years of Triumph, Courage and Excellence. Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press. p. 75. ISBN 9781578593231. 
  5. Notable Deltas

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Carla A. Hills
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Served under: Jimmy Carter

Succeeded by
Moon Landrieu
Preceded by
Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
Succeeded by
Last in line
Preceded by
First in line
United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
Succeeded by
Richard S. Schweiker