Femme History: Patricia Roberts Harris


Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris was a champion of civil rights and a leader for women in law and government. Beginning her academic career at Howard University, she protested the 'white-only' diners by taking part in some of the first sit-ins in Washington, D.C. Her commitment to social justice would only grow from there. In 1977 she became the first African-American woman to serve on a presidential cabinet. From 1977 to 1979, she served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Two years later she continued to break down barriers of race and gender as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Harris's resilience afforded her the strength to overcome repeated criticism from her colleagues.  During confirmation hearings for her appointment to President Carter's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development she asserted,

 “You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. 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 1969 Patricia Roberts Harris returned to her alma mater to accept the appointment of dean to the Howard University School of Law, making her the first woman to hold the position. Today, her legacy lives on with the Howard University Patricia Roberts Harris Public Affairs Program. Harris's commitment to protecting equality, and justice in the realm of law continues to inspire generations of students, and it shall for years to come.