May 31: Julius Richard Petri & Patricia Roberts Harris

Today, Google posted a Doodle celebrating the inventor of the petri dish and associated colony growth techniques, Julius Richard Petri, born on this day in 1852. Here at Speaking Up, we’ll be learning more about the achievements and legacy of Patricia Roberts Harris, born May 31, 1924.

Patricia Harris's official portrait during her tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Patricia Harris’s official portrait during her tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Harris was a legal scholar and United States civil servant who became the first African-American woman in many of the roles she served in the federal government. During her federal career, Harris was an Ambassador (to Luxembourg), the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the Secretary of the department now called Health and Human Services.

15 years after graduating summa cum laude from Howard University, while working in social justice and civil rights, Harris returned to school to pursue a career in law. As a new attorney, Harris worked for the Department of Justice and then became a full professor and dean in the school of law at Howard University. During this period, she also engaged in national social justice projects, working with the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, and served on the boards of several major companies including IBM. It was also during this time that Harris was sent to Luxembourg by President Lyndon Johnson. After many years speaking out against discrimination in housing and employment, Harris was appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Jimmy Carter. Later, she moved into the top position in the Department of Health and Human Services. In those roles, she was commended for strong leadership that allowed her departments to make lasting change and to implement national strategies.

After she left public service, Harris returned to her roots as a law professor at George Washington University. After her death in 1985, Harris was honored with a postage stamp in the Black Heritage series, and the public affairs program at Howard University has been named in her honor. She is also an inductee to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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