“First Women” Series presents “Exploring Justice with The Honorable Patricia Roberts Harris”

The Honorable Patricia Roberts Harris|National Museum of American Diplomacy

Patricia Roberts Harris is a name you should remember. Maybe you have heard of Dean Harris… the first African American woman to serve on a presidential cabinet, appointed as Dean of a Law School, and first female African American Ambassador? Sounds familiar right.

Ambassador Harris was raised by her mother in Chicago Illinois. There Harriss would display her ability to be a diligent student; later finding a scholarship that allowed her to attend Howard University. Before graduating in 1945 she would participate in national sit-ins as a form of protest and to raise awareness of women diversity causes.

From 1946 to 1949, she would return home to Chicago to begin her graduate studies.  

While there, She worked with the Youth Women Christian Association in Chicago (YWCA) as a director.

In 1949, she would continue her graduate work at American University while working as an assistant director of the America Council on Human Rights. 

For six years thereafter she was executive director of the national headquarters of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

1st HUD Secretary Harris, appointed by President Jimmy Carter

 She continued her graduate work at American University while also performing assistant director duties for the American Council of Human Rights. Roberts later received her J.D. from the George Washington University National Law Center in 1960, ranking number one out of a class of 94. Despite her success, Roberts thanked her husband, who urged her to attend law school. 

After a year working in the DOJ, Roberts would become associate dean of students and lecturer in law at Howard University. 

“During 1962–65, she worked with the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union. Although she relinquished her administrative post at Howard in 1963, she remained on the Howard faculty.”(SSA.gov)

As U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg from 1965 to 1967, she was the first African American woman to hold an ambassadorial rank.  

P.Harris|BlackThen Media

She then served as  Dean of Howard Law School in 1969. Becoming the first African American Women .

When asked about her experience as an ambassador she said, “I feel deeply proud and grateful this President [Johnson] 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. ” (Britannica)

In 1980, Harris was appointed Secretary of the Department of Health and Housing development by President Jimmy Carter. 

When asked about her ability to represent the people she served, particularly the poor or less affluent.

She said, “I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, 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. I did not start [off] as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed the scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”

“Upon her passing, Ambassador Harris, a proud and loyal member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Alpha Chapter, left a bequest to Howard University to aid Howard students in funding public affairs internship opportunities domestically and abroad.” (Howard University)

We honor and celebrate Patricia Roberts Harris, for her commitment to social justice and her countless efforts that have paved the way for leaders and future diplomats.

Jack E. H.

Editor: Jeremy Wiles 

Producer: Joseph Wiles


Full Story and Sources:

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, May 27). Patricia Roberts HarrisEncyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Patricia-Roberts-Harris

“Social Security: Patricia R. Harris” Social Security History, http://www.ssa.gov/history/harris.html.

Additional Links:

Recognizing African American Contributions to U.S. Diplomatic History


May 31, 1924: Prominent Black Female Politician, Patricia Roberts Harris is Born

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