Patricia Roberts Harris was the second cousin of my grandmother.
Patricia Roberts Harris (May 31, 1924 – March 23, 1985) served as United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (which office later became United States Secretary of Health and Human Services) in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. She was the first African American woman to serve as a United States Ambassador, representing the U.S. in Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the first to enter the line of succession to the Presidency.
Patricia Roberts was born in Mattoon, Illinois, and was the daughter of a railroad dining car waiter. She graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in 1945. While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa, and she also 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 in 1955. 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. She was the first national executive of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, of which she was a member. 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.
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. 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 one of Washington, D.C.'s most prestigious law firms.
In 1971, Harris was named a director of IBM. She was the first African American woman to serve on the board.
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), 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, at the age of 60. She is interred at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.