As you may or may not know, I live in Houston, Texas. Our woman of focus today is a local hero, but we don’t hear or learn anywhere near enough about her, so I hope this’ll do her some degree of justice. As a tribute to her, and to all my fellow Houstonites, this week’s WCW is Barbara Jordan, who is best known as being the first African-American congresswoman from the South.
Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21st, 1936 in Houston, Texas. Her parents encouraged her from an early age to achieve academic excellence; by the time she started college, Jordan had won numerous awards in debate and as an orator due to her superior rhetoric and argument skills. Jordan attended Phyllis Wheatley High School, a segregated school in Houston’s Fifth Ward. During a speech by Edith Sampson at the school’s Career Day, Jordan was inspired to become an attorney, the career that would one day open her to the world of politics. Jordan graduated magna cum laude in the first class of students at Texas Southern University, which was founded in an effort to put off having to integrate at the University of Texas campus. In 1959, Jordan was one of two black women to graduate from Boston University School of Law. After passing the Bar Exam in both Massachusetts and Texas, Jordan returned to Texas and in 1960 started her own law practice. Jordan entered the political arena by campaigning for both John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson’s presidential runs – she was successful in yielding an 80% voter turnout in Houston’s Harris County.
Jordan’s attempts to serve on the Texas legislature began in 1962, and by 1966 she was elected in, becoming the first black, female member. While in this position, Jordan helped pass Texas’ first minimum wage law, along with legislation detailing anti-discrimination in business and the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. On June 10th, 1972, her fellow lawmakers voted for Jordan to be the president pro tempore of the Texas Senate for the day, which meant that for twenty four hours she was the honorary governor of Texas. On that day, Jordan became the first black woman from the deep South to hold a national chief executive position. Several months later, Jordan was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where she was also a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“I’m not going to Washington and turn things upside down in a day. I’ll only be one of 435. But the 434 will know I am there.”
In 1973, Jordan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but that didn’t stop her at all. Wheelchair bound, Jordan served in the Congress and later gave many acclaimed speeches, continuing to fight for what she believed in despite any physical limitations.
During the Watergate Scandal hearings of 1974, Jordan called for the impeachment of former President Richard Nixon, declaring in her opening speech on national television that she “would not sit and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Nixon soon resigned, and Jordan’s speech gained her fame and recognition for her rhetoric and integrity.
In 1976, Jordan gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first black woman to do so. She remained a U.S. congresswoman until 1979, promoting legislation that fought for women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Social Security benefits. Jordan was often criticized by women’s and civil rights groups for not adamantly supporting their causes, as she put the needs of the community before their agenda.
Jordan retired after three terms as a congresswoman, and became a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas while staying active politically as a speaker and counselor for the Democratic members of the Texas government. She penned an autobiography titled Barbara Jordan: A Self Portrait in 1979. In 1991, she again delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Throughout her career, Jordan was bestowed over twenty-five honorary doctorates, and she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by former President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Towards the end of her life, Jordan had several major health problems, like diabetes and leukemia, that she was able to keep mostly private. On January 17th, 1996, Jordan died of pneumonia, a complication of her cancer. She was put to rest in the Texas State Cemetery, becoming the first African-American interred among the governors, senators, and congressmen there.
Jordan is honored today with several libraries, schools, post offices, and parks christened in her name. Additionally, the Barbara Jordan Freedom Foundation has been working since 2011 to continue Jordan’s work in righting the injustices against children in America. In 1990, Jordan was added to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.
If you want to delve deeper into the incredible career and accomplishments of Barbara Jordan, check out these History, Bio., and History, Art & Archives articles, or check out the Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays! Be heard!