This article was written by Taneia Surles. Taneia is a graduate student and newcomer to the freelance writing world. When she’s not writing or studying, she enjoys watching true crime documentaries and reading.
History as made recently when Kamala Harris becoming the United States’ first female, first African American, and first Asian American vice president last month. In the midst of all this wonderful progress, it’s essential to look back at African American women who also served high positions within the federal government.
Today we will focus on Patricia Roberts Harris, the United States’ first female African American Cabinet member. Harris was born in Mattoon, Illinois, in May 1924 to parents Bert Fitzgerald and Hildren Brodie. With such a prestigious title in the United States, it is no surprise that Harris graduated from Howard University in 1949, one of the top Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) in America. The current vice president, Kamala Harris, is also an alumnus from Howard University. Patricia also attended American University, George Washington Law School, and the University of Chicago.
Harris served under former President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (now known as Secretary of Human and Health Services) from 1979 to 1981. She was the second black cabinet member to be inducted behind Robert Weaver. Being an ambassador wasn’t Harris’s first time holding a high government position. She had previously served as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg under former President Lyndon B. Johnson, making her the first black woman to represent America as an ambassador. During her time in the federal government, Harris opened many doors that weren’t previously available for African Americans, and she wasn’t afraid to do so.
Her first position with the United States’ government was as an attorney for the Department of Justice. Throughout her career, Harris also served various roles, such as associate dean and later dean of Howard University, delegate of the Democratic National Convention, and many more. Harris passed away in 1985 at the age of 60 from cancer. In 2003, she would be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Harris has inspired many African Americans to pursue political careers in a predominantly white, male field. In America, we are still breaking down boundaries—we’ve only had our first black president and vice president within the last twenty years. Harris’s story encourages others not to be afraid to pursue their dreams, even if that means being the first to knock down barriers.
Today we celebrate Patricia Roberts Harris, a woman who held not one, but two cabinet positions and was the first to do so as an African American woman. We admire her ambition, her bravery, and her commitment to progress for black and African American people. She paved the way for so many women of color, to show others what the possibilities. Because representation is so very important. Just like our newest Madame Vice President states, “I may be the first, but I will not be the last.”
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