Jordan, Barbara C

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JORDAN, Barbara C.

Born 21 February 1936, Houston, Texas; died 17 January 1996, Austin, Texas

Daughter of Benjamin M. and Arlyne Patten Jordan

Congresswoman, orator, educator, and author Barbara Jordan first came to national attention as a member of the House Judiciary Committee charged with determining impeachment proceedings against then President Richard M. Nixon for his connection with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Watergate Apartments. Jordan called for impeachment on 25 July 1974. A fellow committee member, Charles B. Rangel, was quoted as saying in an article by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, "Barbara wasn't really that concerned about the guilt or innocence of Nixon. She was most concerned that the Constitution not be distorted for political reasons." As a defender of the Constitution, Jordan dedicated herself to a career in public service.

Jordan was the great-granddaughter of Edward A. Patton of Evergreen, Texas. He was the only black man among the 150 members of the Texas Legislature in 1891. A Republican, he was one of the despised holdovers from what whites called the "nigger party" of the radical reconstruction of the Southern states after the Civil War. Like her great-grandfather, Jordan embodied "first" and "only" when she became the first black female state senator in Texas history. Elected from District 11 in Houston, Jordan was sworn in on 10 January 1967.

Jordan was raised in a cocoon of respectability in the heart of Houston's Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church. She attended Roberson Elementary and Phyllis Wheatley High School, where she was a member of the Honor Society and excelled in debating. She graduated in 1952 in the upper five percent of her class, then attended Texas Southern University, graduating magna cum laude in 1956 with a double major in political science and history. Her law degree came from Boston University in 1959.

Houston was booming when Jordan returned in the fall of 1959. It was hard for her to believe, but Houston's phenomenal population growth in the 1950s made it a larger city than Boston. When Jordan passed the Texas bar exam in the late fall of 1959, she was only the third female African-American attorney licensed to practice law in Texas. Little by little, Jordan began to build a law practice: she used her parents' dining room table and the family telephone to conduct her law business.

In the fall of 1960, with the presidential campaign heating up, she went down to the local Kennedy-Johnson campaign headquarters to volunteer her services. She started out licking stamps and stuffing envelopes, and it was almost by accident that her greatest gift was discovered. "One night there was a speech at a black church in the Fifth Ward… and the speaker who usually gave the pitch was sick and couldn't show up. I was selected to do the pitch, and I was startled with the impact I had on people." Jordan's days of stuffing envelopes ended and she was assigned to the speaking circuit.

Once on the speaking circuit, rallying mostly African-American groups, Jordan came to be noticed by some of Houston's most prominent black citizens. And by the time the Kennedy-Johnson campaign ended successfully, Jordan was bitten by the political bug. She recalled, "My interest, which had been latent, was sparked. I think it had always been there, but that I did not focus on it before because there were certain things I had to get out of the way before I could concentrate on any political effort."

During the early 1960s Jordan campaigned twice on her own behalf for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, but lost both times. In 1966, however, she received 80 percent of the votes cast in her successful bid for election to the Texas Senate. She served from 1966 to 1972, initiating and supporting much social reform legislation. During her second term, she was directly responsible for two major changes in Texas law: the state's first minimum wage law and the first increase in benefits in 12 years for workers injured on the job. The liberal Texas Observer called the passage of the minimum wage by the Texas Legislature a "near miracle."

Social issues remained a focus for Jordan after she was elected to the U.S. Congress. She backed proposals to increase the minimum wage, to extend social security benefits to housewives, to provide free legal services for the indigent, and to expand existing programs to benefit the aged and ill. Jordan's reputation for inspired oratory was confirmed in 1976 with her keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, when she was the first woman and the first African American to serve as party keynoter. In her oft-quoted remarks, she proclaimed, "We cannot improve on the system of government handed down to us by the founders of the Republic, but we can find new ways to implement that system and realize our destiny." She went on to issue a call for "a national community" with everyone sharing in "the American dream." Jordan was reelected to the House and continued to serve her constituents from the 18th District in Texas through 1978, when she retired from Congress after serving three terms as a representative.

She explained her decision to leave politics in her autobiography, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait (1979): "I felt more of a responsibility to the country as a whole, as contrasted with the duty of representing the half-million people in the Eighteenth Congressional District. I felt some necessity to address national issues. I thought my role now was to be one of the voices in the country defining where we were, where we were going, what the policies were that were being pursued, and where the holes in those policies were." She therefore accepted a teaching post at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

In an interview published in Ms. in 1985, Jordan spoke about her career as an educator: "Now that I am teaching I think my future is in seeing to it that the next generation is ready to take over." Until her death in 1996, Jordan committed her formidable talents and skills to her students. She wanted her students to be the premier public servants and guided by a core of principles. Jordan taught the way she legislated, with courage, tenacity, vision, and compassion. In 1996, 131 years after the end of slavery, 30 years after she entered the Texas Senate, and 24 years after she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the South, Barbara Jordan became the first black person to be buried in the State Cemetery in Austin, Texas.

Other Works:

Local Government Election Systems (1984).


Bryant, I. B., Barbara Charline Jordan: From the Ghetto to the Capitol (1977). Rogers, M. B., Barbara Jordan: American Hero (1998).

Reference works:

Black Women in America (1993). CA (1988, 1996).