Notable DC figures: Patricia Roberts Harris

Patricia Roberts Harris is known to (relative) newcomers to DC because a school building is named for her. P.R. Harris Education Center is currently used as a location for the University of the District of Columbia Community College but previously was K-8 public school. It was closed in a round large of school closures in 2008.

But to long-time DC residents, Patricia Roberts Harris was a civil rights leader before the movement was widespread; she led a lunch counter sit-in in 1943*, 17 years before the more well known Greensboro sit-ins. Harris was a lawyer and headed two Cabinet agencies under President Jimmy Carter. She was the first African American member of a presidential cabinet.

Image of 33 cent stamp issued in honor of Patricia Roberts Harris

Photo credit Smithsonian Institution.

Harris grew up in small town Illinois, and she told a story of outright prejudice that must have been common at the time but is a punch to the gut to read in 2014: she received the highest grade point average one term in school (NB: I assume she got the highest GPA more than once; this story is about the first time she earned this honor) and to avoid publicizing her name first, the school changed its policy from printing the honor roll in order by GPA to printing it in alphabetical order.**

Where today’s District elections are vexed by “shadow campaigns” (it might be more accurate to say that District voters are vexed by shadow campaigns), in 1982 there was a “Phantom Campaign” when Harris was widely expected to run for mayor but held off on announcing her run.*** [The list of primary candidates on the date of this article, February 18, 1982, reads like a who’s who of DC Notables: Marion Barry, John Ray, Betty Ann Kane, John Wilson, Charlene Drew Jarvis, and Sterling Tucker. Barry and Kane, of course, remain powerful figures in the District, and Drew Jarvis sits on the Workforce Investment Council.] Harris did run in that election, but lost to Barry.

Like Frank Reeves, who could count among his achievements a nomination to the Board of Commissioners but not a seat on the Board, Harris can count among her achievements the deanship of Howard Law School, though it was a short tenure of not quite a month.**** [Content warning: this article is riddled with what today we would call racial microaggressions.]

Harris died young, in 1986. It’s too bad she didn’t have longer to make a difference in DC. I encourage you to learn more about Harris; there are tributes to her all over the web.


*Patricia Roberts Harris. (1985, Mar 25). The Washington Post (1974-Current File) Retrieved from

**PATRICIA ROBERTS HARRIS. (1982, Jun 08). The Washington Post (1974-Current File) Retrieved from

***By JUAN WILLIAMS Washington Post,Staff Writer. (1982, Feb 18). Patricia harris’ phantom campaign. The Washington Post (1974-Current File) Retrieved from

****By Karen, D. W. (1977, Apr 10). Patricia harris: The cerebral angers of a superachiever. The Washington Post (1974-Current File) Retrieved from

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