Sometimes just meeting the “right” person can set you on a path of firsts. Even in times when the hills to climb seem like mountains and reaching the top seem impossible, if she keeps moving she will find along roads least traveled people awaiting to encourage her.
Meet Patricia Roberts Harris, a political powerhouse who was the first African-American woman to serve in the United States Cabinet, and the first to enter the line of succession to the presidency. She was also the first African-American woman to represent the United States as an ambassador.
Harris was born on May 31, 1924, and died on March 23, 1985.
Can you imagine what life must have been like for Harris in 1924? It may be safe to say that no one thought her climb, especially pre-Civil Rights Movement era, would lead her to toasting with United States’ presidents. After all, it was not even an aspiration of Harris.
While a student at Howard University, Harris participated in one of the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins in 1943. In 1945, she graduated summa cum laude from there.
Initially, she desired to pursue a career in education. Segregation, however, deterred those dreams. As a result, her husband encouraged her to go to law school. She climbed.
Harris ranked first in her law school class. In 1960, she graduated from George Washington University National Law Center. Upon graduation and in her first job as an attorney, she met and befriended the new Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
By 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Harris co-chairwoman of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. Harris was not done climbing.
In 1964, she was elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from the District of Columbia. From 1965 to 1967, Harris was appointed an ambassador to Luxembourg by President Lyndon Johnson. This appointment made her the first African-American woman named as an American envoy.
In 1969, Harris became the first black woman named Dean of Howard University’s School of Law. Although she did not remain in that job long, she continued climbing.
In 1973, Harris was appointed chairwoman of the Credentials Committee and a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee. This led to the two cabinet-leveled posts via the President Jimmy Carter Administration.
Interestingly, Senator William Proxmire had his reservations about Harris securing the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development cabinet position. His concern was not because of her academic achievements or employment record; instead, he questioned whether Harris came from a background of too much wealth and power to be effective.
Reportedly, Harris reminded the senator using the following words: “I am a black woman, the daughter of a Pullman (railroad) car waiter. I am a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house 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 I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”
Once confirmed, Harris became the first African-American woman to enter the presidential line of succession. She was the 13th person in line.
Do you ever wonder about who you would meet or how the trajectory of your life would change if you courageously continued to climb? The answer may be grander than you could ever ask or think or imagine.