We know much, and will soon know much more, about the stated positions of the candidates for mayor of the District on issues affecting the city. What we do not know, to a surprising degree, is who they are--that is, where they came from, what they remember or think is important about the way they got here. In recent interviews with Michael Barone, the five principal candidates for the Democratic nomination talked about their early lives--personal and political.
The former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and ambassador to Luxembourg is talking about growing up in Mattoon, Ill. The measured tone of voice turns to anger. In the fourth grade, when she got the highest grades in her class, the school changed the ranking of the honor roll from grade average to alphabetical order. Her voice grows angrier: it still hurts.
Later, at the University of Chicago, she was advised not to continue in the PhD program: "You know we're not ready for blacks and women." "I'm not sure I ought to stay," she said, and she didn't. Most biographies of Patricia Roberts Harris stress how much she has accomplished--the firsts she has achieved. But she also remembers how being black and being a woman have kept her from receiving recognition and opportunities she earned.
"We never understood we were inferior," Patricia Harris says of growing up in Mattoon. Her mother's family had settled there in 1810, when it was first settled, a place where the dense forests of the East gave way to the vast, flat, treeless, amazingly fertile Illinois prairie. They must have been one of the few black families pioneering what was then America's northwest frontier. When Patricia Harris was growing up, Mattoon was a small city of 15,000 that had no legal segregation and where her family was well known. Her mother still lives there, a woman who worked two jobs so her daughter could go to college, who was never awed by her daughter's success (did she think 50 years ago that it would be possible?) and who urged that daughter to run for mayor.
Patricia Harris first came to Washington in 1941 to attend Howard University, from which she graduated summa cum laude; she recalls with pride how solid and beautiful the dormitories were, "built by Charlie Cassell's father." After graduate school in Chicago, she returned to Washington to work for the American Council on Human Rights, a civil rights lobbying group (the NAACP then had no full-time Washington office) set up originally by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Altogether she worked a decade for groups connected with black sororities--organizations whose formative role in the civil rights movement is now often forgotten. While working, she attended George Washington Law School and graduated at the top of her class.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades of high- level tricia Harris, but she carried through those years the memory of the Howard undergraduate who had been cochairman of a sit-in at a whites-only cafeteria at 14th and U Streets. "It didn't seem so much like Sisyphus rolling a stone up the hill then," she says. "Now it seems like Sisyphus." She sees the gains of past struggles being lost, and resents being told to consider the progress being made when it is in danger and when there is more still to do. And she has not forgotten that no black girl could play an angel in the Mattoon school Christmas play and that they changed the order of the honor roll when she finished first.