Patricia Roberts Harris Dies of Cancer

Associated Press

Patricia Roberts Harris, a Pullman waiter’s daughter whose intellect and plain-spoken manner propelled her to two Cabinet posts in the Jimmy Carter Administration, died of cancer Saturday. She was 60.

Claire Fiori, a spokeswoman for George Washington University Hospital, said Harris died at 2:11 a.m. She had been admitted to the hospital Wednesday as part of her long battle with cancer.

Harris overcame criticism of her lack of federal management credentials and won praise for her firm style as an administrator while serving first as President Carter’s secretary of housing and urban development and then as secretary of health, education and welfare.


Harris, a Washington lawyer with longtime ties to the Democratic Party, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the city in 1982 and had been teaching law at George Washington University.

Graduated With Honors

Born in Matoon, Ill., Harris was graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in Washington and later became active in the civil rights movement, participating in demonstrations aimed at drugstores that refused to serve blacks.

She was graduated first in her class at George Washington University Law School in 1960, was a Justice Department trial lawyer and later associate dean and dean of Howard’s law school. She maintained Democratic political ties during the period, and President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965.

Later, she became a partner in a major Washington law firm and joined the boards of corporations, including Chase Manhattan Bank, Scott Paper Co. and IBM. Those connections led to a now-famous exchange with Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) during Senate confirmation hearings for her first Cabinet nomination.

Proxmire characterized her background as one of wealth and power, saying she was ill-suited to take over a housing agency that needed “someone sympathetic to the problems of the poor.”

‘Needed a Scholarship’

“You do not understand who I am,” Harris replied with characteristic bluntness. “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.”

Many, including Proxmire, later credited her with restoring direction to a demoralized department and making its programs work. She was rewarded with a move to HEW, the largest Cabinet agency, whose budget included Social Security and medical assistance programs. She became the first secretary of health and human services when education was made a separate department in 1980.

Promoted Qualified Women

Harris used those positions to promote qualified women and minorities. A study by the National Women’s Political Caucus showed that her departments had outdistanced other agencies in such progress.

But, despite those actions and her activist reputation, she never was accepted completely by women’s or civil rights groups. Although seeming proud of her record, blacks seldom included her on any list of leaders. Feminists counted on her support, but accorded her largely the same treatment.

Harris even chastised blacks occasionally for “cannibalizing” their leaders and making them feel guilty for their personal successes.

Harris’s husband, William Beasley Harris, a lawyer and administrative law judge, died after a stroke last November.