A lawyer who was active in the Democratic party, she was a law professor and dean at Howard Univ. during the 1960s and became the first African-American woman to hold a U.S. ambassadorship when she was named (1965) by President Lyndon Johnson to the embassy in Luxembourg. As secretary of housing and urban development (1977) under President Jimmy Carter, she was the first African-American woman to serve in a cabinet post. From 1979 to 1981 she was secretary of health, education, and welfare (health and human services after 1980). She ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1982.
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