Howard University graduate Patricia Roberts Harris was the first black woman to hold a cabinet position in the U.S. government, the first black woman to serve as an ambassador, and the first National Executive Director of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated.
Patricia Roberts Harris was born in May 1924 in Matoon, Illinois. Her father worked as a pullman porter for the railroad, but left the family, leaving her to be cared for by a single mother. Harris was an advanced student, earning a scholarship to Howard University in 1941. While in college, Harris was active with the NAACP, participating in one of the first lunch counter sit-ins in America. After graduation, she continued her education at the University of Chicago, studying industrial relations.
Patricia Roberts Harris worked as the National Executive Director of the African American Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. Her husband encouraged her to move forward with her study of law, so she attended George Washington University National Law Center and graduated in 1960 at the top of the class.
Harris was an advocate of women’s rights, and was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. In 1965, one year after the civil rights act, Patricia R. Harris made history under President Lyndon B. Johnson as the first black female U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. She broke another barrier two years later as the first Dean of Law at her alma mater, Howard University; she became the first black woman to head a law school in the U.S.
Patricia Roberts Harris served as the U.S. Secretary of H.U.D., and U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Carter in 1977. She made it her mission to address the needs of the urban communities and was said to be demanding of her staff.
When she left her cabinet position, she tried her hand at running for mayor of Washington but lost against Marion Barry. Harris returned to teaching as a professor at George Washington University Law School until she died of breast cancer at age 60.
In October 1987, Howard University established the Patricia Roberts Harris Public Affairs Program, to encourage students to work in the public affairs sector. Her papers, research, artifacts and other memorabilia were donated to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center in 1988.
On January 27, 2000, Howard University hosted a tribute to Patricia Roberts Harris by unveiling a U.S. postage stamp in her honor. She was the seventh woman to be recognized with a U.S. postage stamp.