Patricia Harris was born on May 31, 1924, in Mattoon, IL. She graduated, summa cum laude, with a B.A. degree from Howard University in 1945. While at Howard, she was elected Phi Beta Kappa. 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.
While at Howard, she met William Beasley Harris, a member of the Howard law faculty, they were married in 1955. She earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University in 1960. Graduating number one out of a class of 94, she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. 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.
Even while she was a student at Howard University, she was interested in politics. As her adult like took shape, she parlayed her interest in political activism into a career path that would bring her to the attention of political leaders.
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.
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.
In 1982, Patricia Harris was appointed a full-time professor at the George Washington National Law Center, a position she served in until her death on March 23, 1985. She had always been aware of her roots and was well-known for her feistiness. At the Senate confirmation committee to approve her cabinet appointment, one senator tried to suggest that Mrs. Harris' position might make her ill-qualified to represent the underclass. To this, she shot back, "I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a Black woman, the daughter of a dining-car worker. I am a Black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia!"
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