Background and Early Years
Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, to the Rev. Benjamin M. Jordan and Arlyne Patten. She was a politician from Texas. She served as a congresswoman in the United States House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979. Active in the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign of 1960, Jordan was recruited to give speeches, and after her success with that endeavor, she was recruited by the local Democratic party to continue on the speaking circuit.
Jordan attended Wheatley High School, where one of the nation's few Black female attorneys, Edith S. Sampson, spoke and inspired Jordan to become a lawyer. This was an improbable ambition at the time because only one law school in the entire state admitted Black students. With the support of her father, Jordan graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in 1956 and then from Boston University Law School in 1959. She passed the bar exams in Massachusetts and Texas before returning to Houston to practice law. She was only the third Black woman to be licensed in Texas.
Jordan had a life partner more than 20 years named, Nancy Earl; Jordan never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, but in her obituary, the Houston Chronicle mentioned her longtime relationship with Earl. After Jordan's initial unsuccessful statewide races, advisors told her to be more discreet in her personal life and not bring any companions on the campaign trail to avoid the nosey press. In the late 1960s, Jordan met Earl, an educational psychologist who would become an occasional speechwriter in addition to Jordan's partner.
Jordan in the House
Jordan unsuccessfully ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and again in 1964. Her persistence won her a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966, where she became the first Black state senator since 1883, and the first Black woman to serve in that government body. She was re-elected to a full term in the Texas Senate in 1968 and she served that position until 1972. She was the first Black female to serve as president pro tem of the state Senate and served for one day as acting governor of Texas in 1972.
In 1972, she was elected to the United States House of Representatives, and became the first Black woman from a Southern state to serve in the House. She received extensive support from President Johnson, who helped her secure a position on the House Judiciary Committee.
In 1974, she made an influential, televised speech before the House Judiciary Committee supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Jordan was mentioned as a possible running mate to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Her speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention is considered by many historians to have been the best convention keynote speech in modern history. She was the first Black woman to deliver the keynote address at the event.
Jordan retired from politics in 1979 and became an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Public Affairs. She, again, was a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1992. In 1995, Jordan chaired a congressional commission that advocated increased restriction of immigration and increased penalties on employers that violated immigration regulations. She sponsored the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 that required banks to lend and make services available to underserved poor and minority communities. She supported the renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and expansion of that act to cover minority languages. This extended protection to Hispanics in Texas, though it was opposed by Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe and Secretary of State Mark White. Her seat in Congress is currently held by Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee.
Many of her speeches have been collected in a new volume from the University of Texas Press called, Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder. Edited by Barbara Jordan's friend and colleague, Sen. Max Sherman, the book also includes a DVD of many of her most famous speeches.
In 1973, Jordan began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. She had difficulty climbing stairs and she started using a cane, and eventually, a wheelchair. She kept the state of her health out of the press so well that in the KUT radio documentary, “Rediscovering Barbara Jordan,” President Bill Clinton said that he had planned to nominate Jordan for the U.S. Supreme Court, but by the time he could do so, Jordan's health problems prevented him from nominating her.
Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. It was only one of many honors given her, including election into both the Texas and National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1995, she was awarded the prestigious United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award; she was the second female awarded. Jordan died on January 17, 1996, due and was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. She was another “first” even after her passing when she became the first Black woman interred at that cemetery. Her papers are housed at the Barbara Jordan Archives at Texas Southern University.
The main terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is named after her.
The Kaiser Family Foundation currently operates the Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholars, a fellowship designed for people of color who are college juniors, seniors and recent graduates as a summer experience working in a congressional office.