In an article in Sunday's Style section, HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris' law school was incorrectly listed. Harris graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1960.
SEE HER' At a Delta Sigma Theta brunch in her honor and Patricia Roberts Harris, the new Housing and Urban Development Secretary, is the gracious lady of the receiving line. In the airy, filtered light of the Kennedy Center's Atrium are gathered her sorority sisters to praise her as the woman of the hour. But it is only for an hour and Harris knows it.In this black, brown and tan world are women as famous as she.
Shift the focus. To a world of power, to Harris' Senate confirmation hearings. Look at Harris, the lone black female, alternating charm and intellect, and refusing to be cowed when challenged by Sen. William Proximire that HUD needs "someone sympathetic to the problems of the poor."
"You don't understand who I am," Harris snaps back. Proximire's gambit couldn't have been more perfectly timed for this woman with whom many blacks feel little rapport. She plays it to the hilt, though, and in a few deft sentences tries to tie herself to the race she was born into by telling of her background as the daughter of a Pullman car waiter (not exactly the bottom of the economic heap for blacks in the 1930s), a woman who started life not at the top of the heap, but looking for a college scholarship, a woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of Washington.
Who is this woman who draws such conflicting responses. They are all Harris, they are all real.
"She's a mixy," says Paulie Murray, the first black female Episcopal priest, who has known her since Harris was 18. "She's a person who comes of multiple ancestry - biologically, socially, culturally, with a loyalty to blacks."
Harris is a kaleidoscope of dusky hues and one of them is the color of anger. Underneath the quiet of this tiny, butter-cream colored woman, who sits on her HUD sofa as if she were born to the purple, is a cool, cerebral anger, a blue flame anger. It is an anger that has to do with how others see her: whites who see her as a changling, blacks who view her as not black, feminists who see little about her that is radical.
It makes Harris angry because what she sees in her mirror each morning is a black face (albeit fair and freckled), a female face, a person who has suffered the consequences of being both in America. It makes that blue flame flare.
"I'm angrier than a lot of street people," she says, sitting in her HUD office. "I've been deprived and it's more than a deprivation of money. It's denial of my personhood."
In a way, the 52-year-old Harris is a woman out of synch with the times. Outside the mainstream as both a black and a female, she has carefully worked her way into it, gathering the credentials over the years, the education, the experience, the credibility that would get her into the board rooms and government offices that signify power in America. She hasn't rattled any sabers along the route, a posture that would get one labeled "a militant" or "a feminist." Instead, she has acknowledged that her "two for the price of one" minority presences in positions of prominence and visibility would not make vast differences, only provide a new perspective. And so she has remained unlabeled, uncategorized.
"She's not an 'of, by and for' kind of person." says a friend. Thus, when President Carter tapped her as his choice for the HUD post, there were no ecstatic huzzahs from blacks or feminists.
So meticulously has Harris wended her way that she has become, almost, by osmosis, a member of the elite: summa cum laude from Howard University, first in her Georgetown University law class, civil rights activist long before it became fashionable, partner in a prominent Washington law firm, ambassador to Luxembourg, 1972 Democratic conventon credentials chairman, and a director on the boards of three large corporations.
In each of these situations, she's been a tough, no-nonsense woman, IBM board chairman Frank T. Cary said that she showed "independence and integrity" during her tenure as the corporation's first black woman director.
Those same traits she brought to what could be considered her one failure: her month-less-one-day tenure as Howard University Law School dean. During the school's turbulent self-evaluation in 1969, striking students took over the school. Admidst the chaos that followed, Harris resigned charging that the school's administration had failed to back her up in her own negotiations with the students. There are some who view her resignation as prompted by the survival instinct: the machinations of a woman who does not like to be associated with failure, only success.
Harris discounts this, nothing that no matter what position of prominence or prestige she reaches, "If I fail, it's as a black and as a female. Harris says that her successes in positions of status are the "result of tragic exclusion.
"I feel I've knocked down yet another barrier and it's all right to be first as a way of being the only. I try to use being first as a way of being the first of many."
"She's incisive and decisive," says Sargent Shriver of Harris. (Harris was one of his partners in the law firm of Field, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Kampelman.) "She can evaluate conflicting claims and give equitable treatment to everyone.
"Just before she left here she took on the planing, financing, redesign and reconstruction of the office library. That doesn't seem like any major job but partners can be very egotistical about the placement and access to such a thing. She did the job in a very intelligent, graceful fashion."
At HUD, Harris is using the same approach. In assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary appointments. Harris has sought to fill the slots with women, blacks and ethnics equally and promises to do more of the same for lower grade positions. At her confirmation hearings, Harris promised to do more than her predecessors, pledging to fulfill the congressional-set goal of 2.6 million new and rehabilitated housing units a year and to make up the "shortfall" in lower-income housing production experienced during the Nixon-Ford years. Ignoring any possible Carter administration budget restraints. Harris marked out plans to be a super-achiever in an agency and field that all admit has myriad problems.
It is a position in line with her background as a woman who once complained to her husband, William Beasley Harris, that despite being first in her 1960 graduating law class, she hadn't done enough.
Harris was born in Mattoon, Ill., "flat Mattoon" she calls it. Her father, Fitzgerald Roberts, died when she was 5. She and her younger brother were sent by her mother, Hildren, to live with a great aunt while she went to work. Three years later, she collected her children and went to Chicago where Harris grew up.
Harris' mother, who still lives in Chicago, says, the family was "relatively poor, but there were books and current events programs that the family listened to, and Harris was a precocious child. The family wasn't on relief and "things weren't backward by any means," her mother sums up.
Harris acknowledges that she's her mother's child, describing Mrs. Roberts as "a strongminded woman.
"She's a tiny, beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful woman. She can wrap a package or repair an iron with equal skill. She expected me to be reading at a very early age. And she expected A's, not A-minuses."
And Harris didn't disappoint. Her high school marks were impressive enough that she had six college scholarships when she graduated, her mother recalls. She chose Howard because she wanted "more competition from a larger student body," says her mother.
Harris had originally thought about being a linguist when she went to Howard, but it was a very different Washington than today that she went out into 33 years ago, after her graduation. Blacks didn't eat downtown. Blacks didn't go to the movies except on U Street. Blacks didn't work in the downtown stores.
Harris went to work on that, and that interest in civil rights eventually sent her back to school in the late 1950s to earn a law degree. In the late '40s she participated in sit-ins in downtown drugstores. As a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, she organized the first national business office for the organization and become a sorority lobbyist for civil rights on Capitol Hill.
Harris one of few black civil rights lobbyists, recalls NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell. "We worked closely together then and she was very effective," he says.
"She spent several years badgering congressmen about civil rights," recalls Louis Martin, deputy chairman of the Democratic associate editor in the protest marches because she was the youngest thing around, a pretty girl and smart.
"When black newspapermen came to Washington, you were always told to get a hold of Pat. She was a source of knowledge. She learned not to be intimidated by big shots long ago."
Indeed, that failure to be intimidated has been interpreted by some as arrogance on Harris' part. "She's very distant for black people," says one critic. "She's very self-centered and self-promoting."
Harris replies that "a unique set of circumstances" got her where she is plus "the ability to understand what makes things move."
"People don't understand that I really care about what happens to black people in this country. Blacks still have limited horizons and it still makes me mad,"
Since blacks are often seen as a monolithic group, undifferentiated in experiences, interests, aspirations or color, Harris feels that perceptions of her are frequently distorted. She explains that her background, like that of many blacks, was poor in material possessions, but not in the quality of life. "Part of the American upward pattern is assumed different because you're black. Members of the genteel poor describes many of us who are black. There was a respect for achivement and education. The only component that is different is that no matter how smart you were you must limit your horizons because of your ancestry.
"You could be a white, white black, a blond who couldn't sunburn, and be equally forbidden to aspire. That is more scarring than people realize. You don't forget it."
Harris doesn't like to spend a great deal of time worrying about the fact that she can't be pigeon-holed or categorized. She says she's so "result-oriented that I focus on problems rather than successes."
That is for the public world. In her private world, it is her husband, and administrative law judge at the Federal Maritime Commission, who is the center of her life. Harris' demeanor warms and brightens when she talks of her husband, a man she met through the former dean of women students at Howard.
"Saide Yancy, who was the dean of women at Howard, called me up one day and said 'There's a fellow up here you should marry," harris says. "I asked her who it was and when she told me I said 'I already know him and he doesn't pay me a bit of attention.' She insisted and we met and we got married five months later - 22 years ago."
"He's just great," she adds, beaming as she shows a visitor a picture collage that features her husband and her mother.
Some people think that Harris has been so driven that she has sacrificed having a family for her positions, but, she says they always wanted children and none came. Certainly, however, her fame is far more visible than her husband's. Harris doesn't feel he's been shunted aside in her career.
"She's a marvelous person. All these years, she's never played games," he says. "She's a lovely person, who's ultimately fair. If I was to be tried, I'd want her for my lawyer."
Their marriage is a happy one according to friends who say an evening at home with the Harrises usually includes him playing the piano, her singing and doing the cooking.
For total relaxation, though, Harris likes to read, a habit she enjoys so much and does so frequently that she feels guilty about it. "I feel that every piece of fiction I indulge in has to be balanced out by a biography. I read five newspapers a day and the Monday trash is always full of the newspapers." She only recently discovered the joys of television because "It's a barometer of public tastes. It's very bad for people who want to relate to society to not be tied into the one unifying medium."
Wanting to relate perhaps more than anything else is the key to Harris' anger. She has taken the road to success, skillfully skirted the pitfalls, and in the process canceled out the elements that might have made her a symbol or a heroine of her race or her sex.
Yet Harris feels she has been a pioneer for women and blacks. "She's really hard and terribly calculating." says a HUD acquintance. "She wouldn't have survived to get where she is if she weren't."