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Picture of Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia Roberts Harris

The career of Patricia Roberts Harris was distinguished by many firsts for black women, including U.S. ambassador, presidential cabinet member, law school dean, and director of a major U.S. company.

Born in Mattoon, Ill., Harris received her early education in Chicago, and later studied government and economics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of five schools that offered her a full scholarship. At Howard, Harris was vice chairman of a NAACP student chapter. She excelled at a number of prestigious graduate schools and received her J.D. degree from George Washington Law School in 1960.

After a brief stay at the Department of Justice, she began a teaching career at Howard University's Law School and became dean in less than 10 years.

Harris's career took an international turn when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to a congressional committee studying the status of Puerto Rico in 1964, and one year later named her U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, making her this nation's first black ambassador. She later served as an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Harris reached another career milestone in 1971 when she was named director of IBM, one of the world's largest corporations.

While serving President Jimmy Carter in two cabinet posts -- first as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and later as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare -- she was a staunch supporter of social programs and increased government funding for both areas. She also started the successful Urban Development Action Grant Program, which assisted decaying cities. More than half of Harris's departmental appointees were women and minorities.

A confident and determined woman, Harris never tired of challenging opportunities. In 1982 she campaigned vigorously, but unsuccessfully, for mayor before returning to law full-time.

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