Barbara Jordan

Jordan, Barbara 2017 by Nancy R. Schiff, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Photo: Nancy R. Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Barbara Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 (to January 17, 1996). She was an inspiring member of the Texas State Senate, the United States Congress, a respected lawyer, and civil rights activist. Jordan was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first southern Black female elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Barbara Charline Jordan grew up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Benjamin Jordan, and a domestic worker, Arlyne Jordan. Barbara Jordan was encouraged by her parents to strive for academic excellence; she attended Roberson Elementary and Phyllis Wheatley High School. While at Wheatley, Jordan was a member of its Honor Society. Her gift for language and building arguments was apparent in high school, where she was an award-winning debater and orator. Jordan wanted to study political science at the University of Texas-Austin, but was discouraged because the school was still segregated. She instead attended Texas Southern University, and pledged in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

In 1956, Jordan graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern with a double major in political science and history. She attended Boston University Law School as one of the few Black students in the program. After her graduation in 1959, Jordan went on to teach political science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for one year before returning to Houston in 1960 to take the bar examination, and set up a private law practice.

Barbara Jordan ran for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and 1964, losing both times, but made history when she was elected to a newly drawn Texas Senate seat in 1966, thereby becoming the first Black person to serve in that body since 1883. Her brief record in the Texas State Senate is viewed as somewhat of a phenomenon. On March 21, 1967, Jordan became the first Black elected official to preside over that body; she was the first Black state senator to chair a major committee, and the first freshman senator ever named to the Texas Legislative Council.

When the Texas legislature convened in special session in March of 1972, Senator Jordan was unanimously elected president pro tempore. Jordan sought to improve the lives of her constituents by helping usher through the state’s first law on minimum wage.  Shortly thereafter, she decided to run for Congress, and was elected in November of 1972 from the newly drawn Eighteenth Congressional District in Houston.

Barbara Jordan sponsored bills that championed the cause of poor, Black, and disadvantaged people, and sponsored legislation to broaden the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cover Mexican Americans in Texas and other southwestern states. She gained national prominence for the position she took and the statement she made at the 1974 impeachment hearing of President Richard Nixon. In casting a yes vote, Jordan stated, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.”

Having become a national celebrity, Jordan was chosen as a keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention in 1976. She told the crowded convention, “My presence here…is one additional bit of evidence that the American dream need not forever be deferred.” She would return to address the Democratic National Convention again in 1992, and was the first person of African descent selected to keynote a major political convention.

President Jimmy Carter considered Jordan for attorney general and United Nations Ambassador but she chose to remain in Congress. She was seriously thinking about challenging Sen. John Tower for re-election in 1978, but became ill and retired from politics.

In 1973, Jordan began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. She had difficulty climbing stairs, and started using a cane and eventually a wheelchair. She kept the state of her health out of the press so well that in the radio documentary “Rediscovering Barbara Jordan,” President Bill Clinton stated that he wanted to nominate Jordan for the United States Supreme Court, but by the time he could do so, Jordan’s health problems prevented him from nominating her. Jordan later also suffered from leukemia.

Jordan took some time to reflect on her life and political career, penning “Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait” in 1979. She soon turned her attention toward educating future generations of politicians and public officials, accepting a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. She became the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair of Public Policy in 1982. In 1987, Jordan was an eloquent voice in opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. She served as an unpaid adviser on ethics for former Gov. Ann Richards of Texas, and was praised for her work on the Clinton panel on Immigration Reform in 1994. President Clinton also honored Jordan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year.

While her educational work was the focus of her later years, Jordan never fully stepped away from public life. When she spoke to the Democratic National Convention, she did so from her wheelchair, as her health had declined by this point. Still, Jordan spoke to rally her party with the same powerful and thoughtful style she had displayed 16 years earlier.

Jordan rarely discussed her personal life, but was a lesbian whose longtime partner was Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist who would become an occasional speech writer. After Jordan’s initial unsuccessful statewide races, advisers warned her to become more discreet, and not bring any female partners on the campaign trail. Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, but in her obituary, the “Houston Chronicle” mentioned her long and loving relationship with Earl. Barbara Jordan died of complications from pneumonia on January 17, 1996. She became the first African American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

We remember Barbara Jordan in appreciation for her principled leadership, her inspiring eloquence, and her many contributions to our community.

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