Barbara Charline Jordan (February 21, 1936 – January 17, 1996) was a lawyer, educator, an American politician, and a leader of the Civil Rights movement. A Democrat, she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first southern black female elected to the United States House of Representatives, and the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors. She was a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors from 1978 to 1980. On her death, she became the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.
Barbara Charline Jordan was born in Houston, Texas’s Fifth ward. Jordan’s childhood centered on church life. Jordan, the youngest of 3 girls, had two siblings, Rosemary Jordan McGowan and Bennie Jordan Creswell (d. 2000). Jordan attended Roberson Elementary School. She graduated from Phillis Wheatley High School in 1952 with honors.
Jordan credited a speech she heard in her high school years by Edith S. Sampson with inspiring her to become a lawyer. Because of segregation, she did not attend The University of Texas at Austin and instead chose Texas Southern University, majoring in political science and history. Barbara was a national champion debater, defeating opponents from Yale and Brown and tying Harvard University. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956. At Texas Southern University, she pledged Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She attended Boston University School of Law, graduating in 1959.
Jordan taught political science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for a year. In 1960, she returned to Houston, passed the bar and started a private law practice.
Jordan campaigned unsuccessfully in 1962 and 1964 for the Texas House of Representatives. She won a seat in the Texas Senate in 1966, becoming the first African American state senator since 1883 and the first black woman to serve in that body. Re-elected to a full term in the Texas Senate in 1968, she served until 1972. She was the first African-American female to serve as president pro tem of the state senate and served one day, June 10, 1972, as acting governor of Texas; albeit for one day, to date Jordan is the only African American woman to serve as governor of a state (excluding lieutenant governors). During her time in the Texas Legislature, Jordan sponsored or cosponsored some 70 bills.
In 1972, she was elected to Congress, the first woman to represent Texas in the House in her own right. She received extensive support from former President Lyndon B. 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 process of impeachment of Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor as President. In 1975, she was appointed by Carl Albert, then Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
In 1976, Jordan, became instead the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Despite not being a candidate, Jordan received one delegate vote (0.03%) for President at the Convention.
In 1994, President Clinton Awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and The NAACP presented her with the Springarn Medal. She was honored many times and was given over 20 honorary degrees from institutions across the country, including Harvard and Princeton, and was elected to the Texas and National Women’s Halls of Fame.
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