In Her Own Words: The First African-American Woman to Become a Cabinet Secretary

At her confirmation hearing, GW alumna Patricia Roberts Harris countered critiques that she was not sufficiently ‘of the people.’

March 29, 2017

Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris (Photo: Library of Congress)

“In Their Own Words” is a GW Today audio feature showcasing voices of historical figures with ties to George Washington University. Every month, GW Today will bring those characters’ words to life through archival recordings or interpretations by members of the GW community. If you have a suggestion for a featured voice, let us know at [email protected].

Patricia Roberts Harris graduated first in her class from the George Washington University Law School in 1960. She went on to make history with a series of other firsts, as the first black female dean of Howard University’s School of Law, the first black woman named an American ambassador and—after her confirmation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1977—the first black woman to enter the presidential line of succession.

During Ms. Harris’s confirmation, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) questioned whether her prestigious education and apparently affluent background would preclude her from understanding the needs of low-income Americans. Echoing press critiques of the time, Mr. Proxmire suggested Ms. Roberts was “not an ‘of, by and for the people’ person.”

“[Reports] indicate you're not one who has gone out to seek the opinion of the average citizen,” the senator said. “Will you really make an effort to get the views of those who are less articulate and less represented and certainly less likely to be knocking on your door with outstanding credentials?”

In Their Own Words wraps up Women’s History Month with a reading from Ms. Harris’s reply. Text is taken from the full transcript of the hearing in the Congressional Record; Ms. Harris's part is read by Kaiylah Watts, a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a junior theater major in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who l am. I'm a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. I’m a black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in some parts of the District of Columbia. Senator, to say I am not by and of and for the people is to show a lack of understanding of who I am and where I came from.

Well, Mrs. Harris, I think you would agree that it’s not enough to be black or to be a woman or to be poor … to understand the problem of so many people who don't get listened to. …Your answer is that you have no problem with this because you're a black woman? Is that your answer?

No, that is not my answer.

Well then what is your answer?

You spoke of the unrepresented and the poor and I said: ‘I am one of them.’

I started, Senator, not as a lawyer in a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to college. If you think I have forgotten that, you're wrong.

I started as an advocate for a civil rights agency, the American Council on Human Rights, that had to come before this body to ask for access to housing by members of minority groups. If you think I have forgotten that, Senator, you're wrong.

I have been a defender of women, of minorities, of those who are the outcasts of this society, throughout my life and if my life has any meaning at all it is that those who start as outcasts may end up being part of the system. And I hope it will mean one other thing, Senator, that by being part of the system one does not forget what it meant to be outside it. Because I assure you that while there may be others who forget what it meant to be excluded from the dining rooms of this very building, I shall never forget it.