How history forgot Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black woman to sit on a Fortune 500 corporate board

Mildred Europa Taylor June 20, 2023
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia R. Harris, ca. 1977. Courtesy US Department of Housing and Urban Development

She was a woman of many firsts. A law school dean and a civil rights leader, Patricia Roberts Harris was the first Black woman to become a U.S. cabinet secretary in 1977 and the first to be named U.S. ambassador when she was appointed to Luxembourg by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. 

Harris was also the first Black woman to sit on the board of a Fortune 500 company when she was elected to the board of IBM in 1971. But only a few people know about this as until recently, Phillips Petroleum board member Dolores Wharton was thought to be the first. Black Women on Boards (BWOB), a networking and board training organization, recently highlighted Harris’ story in OnBoard, a documentary about Harris and other Black women who followed in her footsteps.

Born in Mattoon, Illinois, on May 31, 1924, Harris was the daughter of a Pullman waiter and a schoolteacher. She attended Howard University on a scholarship, graduating summa cum laude in 1945 before serving as program director of the Young Women’s Christian Association in the Chicago area, according to The New York Times. Her husband, William Beasley Harris, who is a lawyer, convinced her to attend George Washington University Law School, where she received her degree in 1960 and was first in her class.

Before she joined IBM, she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice for a short time and became co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. Harris also went back to Howard as an associate dean of students and often lectured at the university’s law school. She also became an organizer for the Democratic Party before becoming the first Black woman to become an ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965.

Harris, who would also serve on the boards of Scott Paper and Chase Manhattan Bank, was at IBM for six years. According to Fortune.com, she stopped serving on the board of directors at IBM when she was invited to the U.S. cabinet to serve as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and later as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, during the Carter administration. 

Since she did not have any past experience in housing and urban development, Republican senators challenged her appointment and during her confirmation hearings, they told her that they have doubts that she can represent the interests of the poor. She replied:  “You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. I am a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”

Harris made headlines for this powerful response that made her the first African-American woman to direct a Federal department. Today, researchers say she should be remembered for that and her activism in Washington, D.C., where she took part in student sit-ins at a whites-only cafeteria in the 1940s.

And even though the recent documentary about her didn’t look into her experiences in corporate boardrooms, the documentary gives viewers a history of board diversity. As of 2022, Black women only represent about 4.6% of Fortune 500 board members, according to a new report from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity. Harris, who paved the way for many Black executives currently, was selected as a permanent professor at the George Washington National Law Center and she was in that role until her death of breast cancer on March 23, 1985, at the age of 60.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 20, 2023

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