Vice President Kamala Harris: First, But Not Last

By California Museum

California Museum & California State Archives

Explore the life and career of Vice President Kamala Harris, the United States’ first woman, first African American and first Indian American Vice President. Created as a partnership between the California Museum and the California State Archives, the online presentation accompanies an exhibit at the museum.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her family watch fireworks on stage (2020-11-07) by AP Photo/Paul SancyaOriginal Source: Associated Press

Family & Education 

Donald Harris holding his daughter Kamala (1965) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

Harris’ background shaped her identity in both her personal and political life. Her father, Donald Harris, is a Jamaican immigrant and professor at Stanford University. Both of Harris' parents were active in the civil rights movement, often bringing her to protests in a stroller.

Kamala Harris, left, with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala (1970) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher, fought for racial equality and instilled political activism in her daughters. "My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally," Harris wrote in her book The Truths We Hold.

Kamala Harris with her mother, sister, and her maternal grandparents, P.V. and Rajam Gopalan (1972) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

In several speeches, Harris has spoken about another role model, her Indian grandfather, P.V. Gopalan. A civil servant, he inspired her with stories about fighting for the rights of Indians to win independence from Britain.

Kamala Harris visiting family in Jamaica, sister Maya to the right (1970/1979) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

Harris visited extended family in both India and Jamaica as she grew up, getting her first taste of the broader world. She is shown here with her sister, Maya, and other family members during a trip to Jamaica.

1st grade class photo from Thousand Oaks Elementary (1970/1971) by Aaron PeskinCalifornia Museum

Harris (bottom left) attended Thousand Oaks Elementary School in the second year that the Berkeley School District used busing to achieve integration. She and other Black children from her neighborhood were transported to the North Berkeley school in a wealthier and whiter area.

Kamala Harris, right, and Howard University classmate Gwen Whitfield protest apartheid (1982) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

Following high school, Harris attended Howard University, a prestigious historically Black college in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and economics. Harris, right, stands with classmate Gwen Whitfield at an anti-apartheid protest during her freshman year.

Kamala Harris poses with her line sister, Darla Dash Washington at Howard University (1982/1986) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

While at Howard, Harris became a prominent member of the debate team and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first Black sorority, which was founded on Howard’s campus.

Kamala Harris graduating from UC Hastings College of the Law (1989) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

Harris attended the University of California Hastings College of the Law and served as president of its chapter of the Black Law Students Association. She graduated with a J.D. in 1989. "My first grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson (left), came to cheer me on. My mom was pretty proud, too,” she remembered.

Kamala Harris with husband Doug Emhoff and stepchildren Cole and Ella (2015/2020) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

In 2015, Harris married attorney Doug Emhoff. Harris, who didn't have children previously, embraced the role of stepmother, or “Momala,” to his adult children, Cole and Ella. Emhoff will be the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. vice president.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris leads a march celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2004-01-19) by AP Photo/Paul SakumaOriginal Source: Associated Press

Early Career

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris kicks off her re-election campaign (2007-06-03) by Eric Slomanson/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live NewsOriginal Source: Alamy

Harris began her political career as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County. In 2000, she took a job with the San Francisco city attorney. Four years later, she became the first person of color elected San Francisco district attorney. She ran unopposed for a second term in 2007.

Smart on Crime manuscript with notes (2009) by Brian BrokawCalifornia Museum

Published as Harris was beginning her 2010 campaign for California attorney general, Smart on Crime outlined her vision for the criminal justice system. She argued that lawmakers must be reform-minded, not just tough on crime. Her handwritten revisions to the manuscript appear here.

California attorney general campaign speeches (3 versions) (2010-11-02) by Brian BrokawCalifornia Museum

The race for attorney general was so close that Harris' campaign created three different speeches for election night. She gave the "don't know result" version that night while her opponent, Steve Cooley, declared victory. Three weeks later, Cooley conceded. Harris had won by one percentage point.

Attorney General Kamala Harris after the oath of office was administered at the California Museum (2011-01-03) by Sacramento Bee/ Paul Kitagaki Jr.Original Source: Sacramento Bee

Harris continued breaking barriers when she became attorney general of California. Sworn in on January 3, 2011, she was the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian American to hold the office in the state's history.

Invitations for inauguration ceremonies and business card (2010/2015) by Brian BrokawCalifornia Museum

Harris gave her inaugural speech as attorney general at the March Fong Eu Secretary of State Building in Sacramento. Shown is an invitation to the ceremony, as well as her business card and an invitation to her 2015 inauguration following her reelection.

AG Harris, surrounded by Senate Pres. pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (2012-07-02) by Sacramento Bee/RenŽe C. ByerOriginal Source: Sacramento Bee

Upon taking office, Harris startled many by pulling out of a proposed settlement from the country's largest banks for predatory lending. She eventually scored a $20 billion payout, ten times the original offer for the state.

Sandy Stier and Kris Perry exchange wedding vows in front of California AG Kamala Harris (2018-06-28) by AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezOriginal Source: Associated Press

Harris also made waves for refusing to defend Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage ballot measure. On June 28, 2013, she officiated at the wedding of Sandy Stier and Kris Perry, lead plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned California's same-sex marriage ban.

Kamala Harris visits Pitchess Detention Center for the Back on Track Los Angeles program (2016-01-05) by Los Angeles SentinelOriginal Source: Los Angeles Sentinel

Another of Harris' accomplishments was the "Back on Track" initiative, which cut recidivism by providing job training and other educational programs to low-level offenders. Here she is in 2016 presenting certificates of recognition to participants who completed the program.

Kamala Harris thanks phone bank volunteers on Election Day (2016-06-07) by AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliOriginal Source: Associated Press

In November 2016, Harris won election to a U.S. Senate seat from California, becoming just the second African American woman and the first South Asian American to enter the Senate. Here she thanks volunteers at a phone bank at the California Democratic Party Headquarters in Sacramento.

Vice President Joe Biden swears in Senator Kamala Harris (2017-01-03) by AP Photo/Kevin WolfOriginal Source: Associated Press

As senator, Harris supported a single-payer healthcare system and provided financial relief in the face of rising housing costs. Vice President Joe Biden led her swearing-in while her husband, Doug Emhoff, held the bible, a family heirloom.

Kamala Harris in the 49th annual Gay Pride Parade (2019-06-30) by Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock.comOriginal Source: Shutterstock

In 2018, Harris introduced the Census Equality Act to ensure that the approximately 10 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ are properly represented in census data collection efforts. “The spirit of the census is that no one should go uncounted and no one should be invisible,” she said.

California convention badge on Senator Harris lanyard (2019) by Terry SchanzCalifornia Museum

More than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls came together in San Francisco for the California Democrats 2019 State Convention. Harris addressed the audience on the second day of the convention. Democratic Party of Sacramento County Chair Terry Schanz wore this lanyard and badge.

Superheroes Are Everywhere (2019-01-08) by Kamala HarrisCalifornia Museum

In 2019, Harris released a children's book, Superheroes are Everywhere, which illustrated her view that you can find inspiration and value in unlikely places. The book takes readers through her life and shows that the power to make the world a better place is within all of us.

Presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks to supporters (2019-09-21) by Michael F. HiattOriginal Source: Shutterstock

2020 Election

Senator Kamala Harris waves to supporters after she announced her Presidential campaign (2019-01-27) by Sacramento Bee/Paul Kitagaki Jr.Original Source: Sacramento Bee

On January 21, 2019, Harris announced her run for president. Six days later, she kicked off her campaign in Oakland, CA, before a crowd estimated at 20,000. Her remarks stressed unity, fighting for the people, and addressed current issues including climate change.

Official campaign poster for presidential campaign (2019-06-18) by Tracie ChingCalifornia Museum

Harris' slogan "For the People" resonated with voters. Artist Tracie Ching created the official campaign poster. Her “Poster For The People,” released June 18, 2019, shows Harris in her campaign color scheme of purple, yellow, and red. Short on funding, Harris exited the race on December 3, 2019.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (2020-08-12) by AP/Carolyn KasterOriginal Source: Associated Press

On August 11, 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden named Harris as his running mate. She was the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent to be nominated for national office by a major party. She was the fourth woman to compete on a major party's presidential ticket.

Biden/Harris campaign ephemera in English and Spanish (2020) by Terry SchanzCalifornia Museum

Biden/Harris campaign materials, including yard signs, paper flyers and signage, stickers, and pins, were produced in multiple languages.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris in the U.S. vice presidential debate (2020-10-07) by Morry Gash/UPI/Alamy Live NewsOriginal Source: Alamy

With plexiglass dividers due to the coronavirus pandemic, then Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence sparred in the vice-presidential debate. When Pence tried to talk over her, she calmly rebuked him, "Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking," a memorable line that became a meme.

"I'm Speaking" t-shirt (2020) by Karen SkeltonCalifornia Museum

Debate viewers flooded social media with admiration for Harris’ ease in standing up for herself, sparking the creation of memorabilia with the phrase "I'm speaking" in online stores.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gives a historic victory speech with President-elect Joe Biden (2020-11-07) by Pat Benic/UPI/Alamy Live NewsOriginal Source: Alamy

On November 7, 2020, four days after election day, networks determined that Pennsylvania's Electoral College votes would be for Biden, securing the Democratic ticket's victory. That evening, Harris took the stage as Vice President Elect, her white pantsuit a nod to the suffragists who preceded her.

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris Acceptance Speech (2020-11-07) by California MuseumCalifornia Museum

In her remarks, Harris paid tribute to women throughout history who made the moment possible. “I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be, unburdened by what has been,” she said. “I stand on their shoulders.”

President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris meet with COVID-19 Advisory Board (2020-11-09) by REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstOriginal Source: Alamy

Even after all states had certified their electors, confirming Biden’s win, President Trump refused to concede, making baseless allegations of fraud. Meanwhile, the Biden/Harris team began the transition process, preparing to tackle pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks at conference (2021-01-07) by Kamala HarrisOriginal Source: Kamala Harris

After Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, leaving five people dead, Harris condemned the assault but also addressed the police response. "The challenge we’re about more than the actions of a few. It’s about how to transform a justice system that doesn’t work equally for all."

Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (2021-01-20) by AP Photo/Andrew HarnikOriginal Source: Associated Press

Due to the pandemic and security concerns, the Biden-Harris inauguration was a mostly virtual, nationally televised event. On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris made history, becoming the first female, first Black, and first South Asian American vice president in US history.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created as a partnership between the California Museum and the California State Archives.

Thank you to the following advisors and contributors:

Brian Brokaw
Karen Skelton
Los Angeles Sentinel
Nathan Barankin
Office of Senator Kamala Harris
Sacramento Bee
Terry Schanz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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