Tag Archives: United States Secretary of Health and Human Services

Patricia Roberts Harris ~ In Memory

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Thanks to some of our sharp-eyed readers, it has come to our attention that several lines had been dropped from our story on Patricia Roberts Harris.

As a result, the information regarding her appointment as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and then Secretary of Health and Human Services was incomplete and, without the full wording, inaccurate.

Below, we present the story of Patricia Roberts Harris again, in its entirety.

Many readers also offered kind words for Our American Story, which marked its first anniversary in September. We launched this series to spur discussion and highlight important people and events in the African American story and the role they played in the larger American story. This series also provides a way for us to connect friends throughout the nation who are excited about the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and are eager to get an advance look at some of the stories it will present. Thank you for your wonderful support.

Edison R. Wato, Jr.
Membership Program Manager

Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page From Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
A Higher Standard: Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia Roberts Harris sworn in as US Ambassador to Luxembourg
Patricia Harris in her swearing in ceremony
to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.
Provided by the U.S. State Department.

Dear Friends,

Black women have always served a critical role in the African American community, from the names we all know — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks — to today’s young mother fighting for educational opportunities for her children. Others have quietly broken barriers to open doors that were once closed to people of color.

Patricia Roberts Harris is one of those quiet warriors whose life stands as a testament to excellence, tenacity, and commitment to change.

She was born on May 31, 1924, the daughter of Hildren and Bert Roberts, in Mattoon, Illinois. A product of Illinois public schools, Harris attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., on scholarship and graduated summa cum laude in 1945. From early in her life as a brilliant scholar at Howard, she went on to become the first African American woman to serve as a United States ambassador and later the first African American woman to serve as a Cabinet Secretary. Harris was a powerful influence in American politics and a major figure during the Civil Rights Movement.

After graduation from Howard, she went back to the mid-west and began graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1946. But the opportunity to become actively involved in working for social justice drew her back to Washington, D.C. She continued her graduate work at American University, and, at the same time, served as assistant director for the American Council of Human Rights. She also served as the first national executive director of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., of which she was a member.

At the encouragement of her husband, William Beasley Harris, a prominent attorney in the District, Harris enrolled in The George Washington University Law School, where she graduated in 1960, first in her class.

During this time, while still active in the fight for civil rights, Harris became increasingly involved in the Democratic Party. Her ability to organize and manage did not go unnoticed. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy selected Harris to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, described as an “umbrella organization encompassing some 100 women’s groups throughout the nation.”

In October of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Harris ambassador to Luxembourg, making her the first African American woman to be chosen as a United States envoy. For Harris the historic moment was bittersweet, saying, “I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before.”

With the change of administration in 1968, Harris’ diplomatic role ended. She returned to Washington, D.C., and became the first woman to serve as Dean of Howard University’s School of Law.

In the early 1970s, Harris’ involvement in the Democratic Party culminated in her being named chairman of the powerful credentials committee and an at-large-delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 thrust Harris into the spotlight, again for another “first.” Shortly after taking office in 1977, Carter selected Harris to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Again Harris made history, this time by not only becoming the first African American woman to become a Cabinet Secretary, but also the first to be in the line of succession to the Presidency, at number 13.

During her confirmation hearing, Senator William Proxmire challenged her nomination and asked her if she felt capable of representing the interests of the poor and less fortunate in America. By this time in Harris’ life she had established herself as not only a recognized leader for civil rights, but also as a prominent corporate lawyer and businesswoman. Some, including a few black leaders, wondered if Harris had grown out of touch with the very people she was charged with serving.

Harris’ answer silenced her critics and perhaps best explains what motivated her throughout her life:

“Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. …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 I have forgotten that, you are wrong…if my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts may end up being part of the system.”

US Postal Stamp of Patricia Roberts Harris

During her tenure as HUD Secretary, she helped reshape the focus of the department. A staunch supporter of housing rehabilitation, Harris funneled millions of dollars into upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods rather than wiping them out through slum clearance. She developed a Neighborhood Strategy Program that subsidized the renovation of apartments in deteriorated areas. In addition, she expanded the Urban Homesteading Plan and initiated Urban Development Action Grants to lure businesses into blighted areas. She poured millions of dollars into renovating deteriorating housing projects throughout the nation.

Harris was so effective at HUD that President Carter appointed her Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1979. When Congress created a separate Education Department in 1980, HEW was renamed Health and Human Services (HHS), and Carter moved quickly to name Harris its Secretary, a position she held for the remainder of his administration.

In 1982, following an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Washington, D.C., Harris became a full-time professor at The George Washington University National Law Center. She passed away on March 23, 1985 at the age of 60.

In January, 2000, the U.S. Postal Service honored Ms. Harris with a commemorative postage stamp bearing her likeness. Dignitaries from around the nation attended the unveiling ceremony at Howard University, her alma mater, to pay tribute and recognize her contribution to the nation. In addition, Howard created the Harris Public Service Program in her honor to augment its course offerings in public policy and to encourage students to consider careers in public service.

Patricia Roberts Harris’ life is a powerful chapter in our American story. “I am one of them…,” she said at her 1977 hearing to become HUD Secretary. Those words underscored her commitment to social justice and her sense of responsibility to the African American community and to the nation. Those words serve as testament to her life and legacy: political pioneer, successful businesswoman, educator, and champion for civil and equal rights.

All the best,
Lonnie Bunch, Director

Lonnie Bunch
DirectorThe National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest member of the Smithsonian Institution’s family of extraordinary museums.The Museum will be far more than a collection of objects.
The Museum will be a powerful, positive force in the national discussion about race and the important role African Americans have played in the American story — a museum that will make all Americans proud.



Obamacare Enrollment Gaining Steam

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the enrollment figures for Obamacare through the end of November. Unsurprisingly, about four times more people enrolled during the month of November as did during October, when HealthCare.gov was largely non-functional. Reports indicate that enrollment has continued to surge over the past two weeks ahead of the December 23 deadline to purchase coverage taking effect January 1, 2014.

Here are the topline numbers to know:

  • 110,410 Americans signed up for private coverage through HealthCare.gov just last month.
  • 1,900,000 people have made it through the process but have yet to select a plan.
  • 364,682 Americans selected plans through the state-run or federal insurance marketplaces (137,204 through HealthCare.gov and 227,478 in state-run exchanges).

The surge resembles Massachusetts’ successful launch of Commonwealth Care, where most people signed up later in the open enrollment period:


Enrollment for Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Care in 2007:


In other good Obamacare news, a report out today found that the number of women who are receiving birth control at no additional cost — a key Obamacare benefit — has jumped 25 percent since the requirement went into effect last year.

“This data confirms that the Affordable Care Act is already working for millions of women and their families — and we expect that number to keep growing,” said the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Cecile Richards.

For their part, Republicans continued to attack the law during another predictably one-sided hearing.

Things did not go so well for Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), who botched an attempt to compare HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to North Korea’s totalitarian dictator and then totally freaked out. A Democratic Member admonished Shimkus, who was shouting at Sebelius, to allow her to actually answer his questions. “I do not have to allow her to answer the question!” Shimkus screamed in reply.


(Shimkus was attacking the aforementioned no-cost preventive care benefits under Obamacare, which include birth control and cancer screenings.)

BOTTOM LINE: Obamacare is working and more than a million Americans have gained access to health coverage because of the law, many for the very first time.

HHS awards Affordable Care Act funds to expand access to care

The U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today announced $150 million in awards under the Affordable Care Act to support 236 new health center sites across the country. These investments will help care for approximately 1.25 million additional patients.
New Access Point Awards Map

Read the News Release

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Health Care Supporter,

Health care will be front and center when the Democratic National Convention begins tonight. There will be a short film about the fight for the Affordable Care Act and the important benefits it has delivered to the American people. During the hour starting at 8 p.m. ET, be sure to see the story of how health care reform has transformed the lives of people across the country. Later we’ll hear from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and First Lady Michelle Obama.

We expect the video and these leaders to highlight some of the life-changing accomplishments of Obamacare that will be felt for generations to come:

  • People with pre-existing conditions will no longer be blocked from buying affordable health insurance.
  • The Medicare prescription drug plan donut hole has begun to close for good.
  • Seniors now have a whole range of preventive health benefits with zero out-of-pocket cost.
  • Women are entitled to no-cost contraception and preventive benefits.
  • Insurance companies must spend 80% of premiums on actual health care or give the difference back to consumers.
  • Small businesses that offer health plans to their workers are collecting tax credits.

Be sure to follow HCAN on Twitter and like us on Facebook. We’ll be sharing the video as soon as it is available. You can also watch the convention without interruption on C-SPAN.


Will O’Neill
Health Care for America Now

A Milestone for Women’s Health, But More Work Ahead

Amid the dire budget news of late, this week we did have something to celebrate.

As you’ve heard, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has adopted recommendations requiring health insurers to cover a number of women’s preventive health care services — including the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives — with no co-pays in all new health insurance plans.

Over 60,000 of you signed our petition in support of making birth control available at no cost to the woman, and your voices were heard! Please help us continue our work on issues that are vital to you — and to all women and their families — by making a donation today!    www.nwlc.org

For many years, the National Women’s Law Center has advocated for equity in health insurance coverage, including working to ensure that women have access to affordable contraception and other preventive services. And, with support from friends like you, this week it paid off. But HHS is considering exempting some religious employers from providing contraception, so we still need your help to ensure that all women are guaranteed this vital coverage.

Please support NWLC in our work on behalf of women’s health and other important issues.    www.nwlc.org

This decision is a major milestone in the effort to improve the health and lives of women and their families, and we applaud HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for taking this huge step forward for fairness and improved health outcomes for women.

Thank you so much for your gift today and for the powerful support you’ve given NWLC in the past. With your help, this week’s good news is a precursor of many victories to come.



 Judy Waxman
Vice President for Health and Reproductive Rights