In our literary women’s club this was the year of women leaders in American Government. I learned a lot about the fine spirit and wonderful ethics of American women. I chose to research Patricia Roberts Harris of whom I knew nothing before I started my research and for whom I had deep respect when I finished the paper and presented it. Here it is for all of you to be inspired.

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PATRICIA ROBERTS HARRIS : MAY 31 1924- MARCH 23, 1985 (60 years 10months)

It is never clear what drives a woman of color to excel. Is it the geographic place where she is born? A small town of few hundred people with only 1% people of color?

Or is it the daily view of an impressive vista of the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier which spreads out like a page from the National Geographic. She lays eyes on it at the south exit of her small town of Mattoon.

What drives a woman of color to excel? Is it watching the work ethic of her father who serves white people on the dining car, silently and patiently day after day, or is it the unflinching ethics of her mother a teacher who prayed diligently and worked hard and long to raise her children out of the depths of poverty.

What drives a woman of color to excel? Is it being sent to the large cosmopolitan city of Chicago with her only brother and propelled into the unlimited possibilities promised by the big city? Or is it the keen knowledge at a young and distractible age that only those who turn away from distractions and focus on academic achievement will win success.

Or is it when she decides to put her nose to the grind in high school when all her classmates are partying always keeping her goal in view. She knows that her only ticket to college is through the possibility of a scholarship.

Such a woman has to be highly intelligent, extremely observant, initially silent and willing to learn at the expense of her ego.

In the age of segregation in a city milling with all colors and economic levels she navigated seamlessly through the maze of ego bruising and deliberate demeaning of women of color.

We know without a doubt that Patricia Roberts Harris was a woman of color who excelled in so many ways that are both academic and political. She forged a way into pathways of American politics and academic life hitherto untrodden by women of color and sometimes women period.

Born to a father who worked as a dining car waiter and a mother who was a school teacher she lived her childhood years in a small town called Mattoon in Illinois in which 1% of the population was African Americans.

For high school she went to Chicago with her brother at a time when the US was divided not only between haves and have-nots but also by the color of the skin. Patricia Roberts obviously was born on the wrong side of the tracks to succeed in racially segregated America. An America that seemed to have a blind eye to the capabilities of the black people other than for menial jobs.

In Chicago as a high schooler she saw the crumbling tenements and the decay of the living quarters of the urban poor. Perhaps this was at the root of her passion to improve the living conditions of the poor. When she was in a position politically to help, she did help those who had forgotten to help themselves and whose world ended at their broken stoop.

In a city like Chicago with thousands of distractions and an ongoing fight for self-preservation especially for the poor black it is not clear how she not only survived but also thrived in enough safety to study consistently and long. She worked hard enough to excel and win a college scholarship not for football like students do nowadays, but an academic scholarship that placed her in Howard University all the way across into the political heart of the country.

Arriving in Washington D.C. she was shocked and incensed at the blatant segregation between blacks and whites. While it was a city with the highest black population in the entire country yet they could never rise above the menial level of work and thus of economic status. This was not the south, which had a bad name for having slaves this was the progressive north, which had abolished slavery. Yet in the nations capital the blacks and whites could not sit at a table and have a conversation over a cup of coffee.

This was Washington D, C 1943 not 1864. It had been sixty years since the 13th amendment had been passed abolishing slavery.

Yet the lunch counters in the restaurants would not allow blacks to sit there, as they were “white” lunch counters. In 1943 as a 19 year old student of Howard University she served as vice chairman of the university’s student branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participated in a sit in to force desegration in a white restaurant in Washington D.C. This was the emergence of the civil rights movement that later took over the entire country.

She graduated summa cum laude in 1945 a year ahead of time with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. She returned to Chicago to do graduate work at the University of Chicago.

What was her secret of being able to work across racial lines without compromising her passion to improve the economic and educational status of the black folks and yet be fair and balanced in her racial outlook.

Growing up in a primarily white neighborhood in Mattoon Illinois, and then being exposed to the underbelly of Chicago in a protected manner, she seemed to have developed ease in conversing across the racial lines without being defensive or servile. This ability served as a major asset as she faced many white men at her confirmation hearings as well in congress where she negotiated housing for the poor and disadvantaged, most of who were black.

Patricia Roberts had many firsts in the history of African American women in the United States:She was the first African-American woman to hold a Cabinet position, the first African American woman to serve as an ambassador and the first African American woman to head a law school.

Her story is filled with academia and politics, which are strange bedmates and a voice for the “the people of the tenements”

While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa. 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 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, Patricia 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

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson chose Patricia Harris to become the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. She was the first African American woman named as an American envoy.

She said, “I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before.”

She also served as an alternate delegate to the 21st and 22nd General Assemblies of the United Nations. She served till 1969.

Following her service as Dean of Howard’s School of Law from 1969 to 1972, she joined one of Washington, D.C.’s most prestigious law firms.

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.

In 1982, Patricia Harris was appointed a full-time professor at the George Washington National Law Center, a position she served in until her death on March 23, 1985. She had always been aware of her roots and was well known for her feistiness. At the Senate confirmation committee to approve her cabinet appointment, one senator tried to suggest that Mrs. Harris’ position might make her ill qualified to represent the underclass. To this, she shot back, “I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, the 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!”

She never had any children and she died within a year of her husband. She had breast cancer which is much more lethal in African American women than white women and according to the CDC the mortality is 37% higher than white women.

African American women who get breast cancer are more likely to die from the disease than white womenand are less likely to survive for 5 years after diagnosis.3

Studies suggest that this disparity is due to African American women being diagnosed with breast cancer at a later stage, 4 and receiving treatment later after diagnosis. We do not know if that was true with Patricia Roberts Harris.

Some interesting facts that came out in this study:

  1. There are 44 million African American individuals in the US
  2. More than half of black Americans live in the south
  3. New York had the largest black population of any state as of July 1, 2008 (3.5 million); Georgia had the largest numeric increase since July 1, 2007 (67,000). The District of Columbia had the highest percentage of blacks (56 percent), followed by Mississippi (38 percent).


Patricia Roberts Harris rose to the top of the US political system without overt use or sex, money or manipulation by coercion.

She is a true statement of hard work, ethical concerned parents, and a passionate focus on the betterment of the human race as it survives in the ghettos of the United States.


*** Photo courtesy:http://www.findagrave.com




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