While Harris sparred intellectually in the classroom, she also received a real-world education at historically Black Howard, volunteering with her sisters in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in the mostly African American and then-struggling Shaw community that is home to Howard, according to friends from her Howard years.
Four decades later, Harris resides in a very different Washington than the one of her youth — the affluent, mostly White neighborhood of West End, where she and her husband, Doug Emhoff, purchased a luxury condominium for $1.7 million in 2017, the year the former California attorney general was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Before the presidential campaign, before a phalanx of sober-faced U.S. Secret Service agents began to surround her, before she made history as the first woman of color elected to be vice president, Harris brunched regularly at the Australia-inspired Bluestone Lane cafe in her neighborhood. She stopped in at the nearby Trader Joe’s to do her grocery shopping. She was a familiar face at the critically acclaimed Blue Duck Tavern around the corner from her condo and the popular Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street in the now-gentrified Shaw/Logan Circle area.
Unlike many federal lawmakers, who treat the city more like a business stop than a second home, Harris has traversed the lines that separate the many versions of the nation’s capital: Black and immigrant and White Washington; poor and rich Washington; official Washington and the “real” Washington whose residents have deep, often generational ties to D.C.
In the ’80s and in recent years, Harris has managed to touch them all. She is as comfortable at Howard Homecoming or Black Lives Matter Plaza as she is in the halls of Congress.
Once Harris is ensconced as vice president in the imposing, white 19th-century home on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, her friends expect her to become even more engaged in the life of the city.
“It was something that she really admired about President Obama, that he really got out in the community,” said Khalid Pitts, who has been friends for 14 years with Harris and co-owns Cork Wine Bar with his wife, Diane Gross. “And because she has had a sort of extra relationship with the city, because she went to Howard, I think she may feel that way more.”
Harris arrived at Howard University in fall 1982, a vivacious teen with a brilliant smile who quickly became known for her outsize sense of purpose, raucous laugh and adventurous spirit.
Melanie Wilcox Miles, a Houston attorney, met Harris at Howard’s freshman orientation. Their first forays were to each other’s rooms in the red brick Harriet Tubman Quadrangle, also known as “The Quad,” consisting of five interconnecting residence halls. Soon, Miles, Harris and their freshman cohort began sharing a table in the cafeteria, but “that was very short-lived,” Miles said. Harris, an accomplished home cook, was a budding foodie. “I remember her turning to me and saying, ‘Okay, what kind of food are we going to eat today?’ ” Miles recalled.
Harris and her friends began exploring Washington together, dining on Ethiopian, Jamaican, Southern comfort food and other fare throughout the city. They frequented Cafe Lautrec, a now-defunct French bistro in Adams Morgan, where a performer named Johne Forges famously tap-danced on the bar, recalled Jill Louis, a Dallas attorney who, along with Harris and Miles, pledged AKA at Howard. Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW was a favorite late-night spot for a half-smoke or a burger, and for a quick, delectable treat, there was always Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen on the edge of campus.
“You would walk through the snow just to get a taste of that biscuit,” Louis recalled.
But there was also more to life than food. On Sundays, Harris and her AKA sisters would sit in the pews at Rankin Chapel on campus, listening raptly as Howard alumna and fellow AKA Toni Morrison spoke or poet Gwendolyn Brooks performed a reading, Louis said. They went to St. Augustine Catholic Church near Meridian Hill Park to hear gospel music and Black priests preach. They’d also dip into services at New Bethel Baptist Church on Ninth Street NW. Denominations didn’t matter to Harris, Miles recalled. “We were sampling. What we felt was not so much a sense of religion as a sense of spirituality,” she said.
Like many college students in a new city, Harris also had a second home — the Kalorama brownstone of family friend Lenore Pomerance. Harris would bring her laundry there, babysit Pomerance’s daughter, Lilah, and sometimes host her sorority sisters and friends for pizza and conversation while she housesat.
“This was a time when we really got to know each other as adults,” said Pomerance, 78, who met Harris’s mother, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan, while they were both students at the University of California at Berkeley.
“She was pretty much then what she is today,” said Pomerance, a psychotherapist, who still lives in Kalorama. “She is the most authentic, natural person. Her ready laugh is just so genuine.”
Harris and her friends would also take the Metrobus to Georgetown to try on clothes from United Colors of Benetton or popular designer Norma Kamali or listen to local jazz bands at Blues Alley. They’d paddleboat on the Tidal Basin, floating past the blooming cherry trees in early spring, Louis said.
In official Washington, the Howard women protested apartheid outside the South African Embassy and attended the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. “We went to college in a place where you could touch the world,” Louis said. “We never felt we existed in a vacuum.”
Washington’s diversity energized Harris, Miles said. She loved to explore the city’s streets, buying gerbera daisies from flower vendors to brighten her dorm room.
“My fondest memories of her are at community festivals,” Miles said, especially Georgia Avenue Day, which was started in the early ’80s to promote small businesses along the economically depressed Georgia Avenue corridor. At the start of Harris’s senior year, glamorous Hollywood actress Jayne Kennedy served as the parade marshal, dressed in white atop a Cadillac limousine.
“I remember Kamala just being so thrilled about going out and seeing all of the food vendors and artists. . . . She loved the realness of interacting with people on the street,” Miles said.
“I think that an important thing to highlight in terms of Kamala’s experience in D.C. is that at Howard she was in the community,” Louis said. “When you are part of the community, you don’t see people as ‘other.’ You realize they need some grace.”
Even now, as Secret Service black Suburbans flank the sparkling glass condo building where Harris and Emhoff live, the folks at Bluestone Lane still view the vice president-elect as part of their West End community. On weekend mornings before Harris’s own run for president, Emhoff would come downstairs from the couple’s two-bedroom apartment and put his name on the waiting list. The restaurant would text him when it was time to come down and the pair would take their regular seats at table 201 near the bar. Harris would get a regular latte and an avocado smash. Emhoff ordered the Green Baked Eggs, said cafe manager Chanel Hammock.
“They were always very polite and very patient,” Hammock, 29, said. “She always had a very genuine warmth.” They’d stay 45 minutes or an hour, and appeared to be enjoying each other’s company. “There was a genuine sense of love between them, you could tell.”
At Cork Wine Bar, Harris has been quick to mingle with staff and guests eager to meet or snap a selfie with her. “She’s very approachable. It’s like she’s saying ‘I went to school here. I ran around with no money. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like you,’ ” Pitts said.
Unsurprisingly, Harris knows her California wines, because she genuinely enjoys wine — her palate is “above average,” Pitts said — and also because she has represented her state’s wine-growing industry.
Harris relishes learning the history of winemaking, especially how wines connect to countries and cultures, Pitts said. The friends recently discussed how the grape used for California zinfandels is a cousin of an Italian dark-skinned grape called primitivo.
“One of the things I found I appreciate about her is that just like with people, she sort of made the connections,” he said. “It’s not just a local thing. It’s regional. It’s global. We’re all sort of interconnected.”
He expects Harris will bring that ethos to bear as she expands her footprint in the city. “People who don’t live here don’t realize that there’s more than one D.C.,” he said. “There’s Congress and the national D.C., and then there’s the local folks here.”
“I think people are excited about her and her personality to help bridge that gap,” he said. “And I think she wants to do that because she has lived here. I think she knows the different parts of D.C.”