By Kali Henderson
Barbara Jordan was a renowned politician, attorney, and educator who broke through the color barrier by becoming the first African American woman to be elected to the Texas Senate. Although her career as an elected official was short, her impact was significant considering the political climate of the country during the 1960s. She was a pioneer who paved the way for countless Americans to participate in the electoral process.
Barbara Charline Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 to Ben Meredith and Arlene Patten Jordan. She was the third child of the couple and was raised along with her two older sisters in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Ben was a strict father and governed his house in a manner consistent with his fundamentalist Baptist religious beliefs. Arlene was a domestic worker and housewife heavily involved in the church. Arlene’s grandfather, Edward A. Patton, served in the state legislature after reconstruction and was one of the last African Americans to do so in Texas until his great-granddaughter, Barbara was elected in 1966.
Her maternal grandfather, John Ed Patten, was an influential figure in Barbara’s life. He encouraged her to forge her own path and validated her intellect as a means to succeed. Throughout her life, Jordan credited her grandfather for the encouragement he provided in her early years. Ben also received some of the credit for Barbara’s achievement. His strict parenting and emphasis on achievement resulted in all of his daughters being excellent students. He expected his daughters to participate in church activities at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church. This is where young Barbara learned that she had a gift for oration. The community nurtured her gift and she often recited religious poetry or scripture at her church or at others within the community.
In the color-conscious black community, then and now, Barbara’s appearance as a big, dark-skinned woman prevented her from gaining popularity based on appearance. However, her wit, intellect, and charm won over those who didn’t see her as “traditionally” attractive. At Phyllis Wheatley High School, she was awarded “Girl of the Year.” Edith Sampson, a black attorney who went on to become the Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County, spoke at a Wheatley Career Day. Seeing this eloquent and successful black woman had a significant impact on Barbara’s decision to attend law school.
During this time, the University of Texas at Austin was embroiled in a legal battle over its segregationist policies. Instead of changing those policies, local politicians and the administration formed an alternative school, Texas Southern University, to accommodate black students who were not permitted to attend the University of Texas or its law school. Because Texas Southern was hastily assembled, the pre-law track was not established. Barbara spent her college years taking courses that were not related to the law necessarily. Ultimately, she spent an additional year taking pre-law courses before her graduation.
At university, Barbara pledged the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, as they were not as color-conscious as some of the other sororities. Throughout her life, Barbara continued to be active, as an alumna, in the Delta Sigma Theta organization by speaking at Delta-sponsored events. While at Texas Southern, Jordan also became involved in the debate team where she developed her oratory skills. Her debate team won against many schools around the country, black and white. Traveling with the debate team allowed Barbara to see how her community was insulated from the daily prejudices experienced by many blacks living in a racially segregated society. Tom Freeman, the TSU debate coach, encouraged Barbara to consider Boston University School of Law instead of attending the law school at Texas Southern. Her parents and sisters sacrificed financially so that Barbara could attend Boston University School of Law.
Through her experiences in Boston, Jordan was able to develop the interpersonal skills that would allow her to gain access to the predominately closed circle of white Texas politicians. Her grades in law school were just good enough to remain in school but not good enough to grant her access to any positions of prestige, such as the Law Review. Upon graduation in 1959, Jordan was admitted to the Massachusetts and Texas bar, making her only the third African American woman to be licensed to practice law in Texas. Back in Houston, she set up a small law practice first in her parent’s home and then in a small office she shared with two other black attorneys.
Jordan’s law practice primarily served the members of her community and wasn’t the challenge that Jordan sought. In 1960, she volunteered at the Kennedy-Johnson campaign headquarters. She began by doing basic office tasks, but when a speaker for the campaign was unable to attend an event, Jordan filled in. As a result, she began speaking at other campaign events. The district in which she campaigned had an 80% voter turnout. She later expressed feeling used in that campaign to secure the black vote. However, she learned through that experience what encouraged people to take action.
After the presidential election, Jordan continued to speak at different events locally and around the state; this experience was the foundation for the voter support she utilized in her bid for the Texas Senate. One of the campaign organizers that worked with Jordan in the presidential campaign, Chris Dixie, suggested that Jordan run for a seat in the state legislature. Although initially reluctant, she agreed in 1962 and began utilizing the network of business owners, community leaders, union leaders, and ministers who had seen her campaigning skills in the previous presidential election. Jordan had two unsuccessful runs for the Texas senate. Due to a reapportionment in Texas, in 1966 she was elected to represent the newly formed District 11 that was primarily African American.
Jordan served in the Texas senate from 1967 to 1972 and was the first black woman in the state’s history to serve. While in the state senate, Jordan cosponsored Texas’ first law ensuring a minimum wage and helped to create the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. To gain access to “the Club” atmosphere of the Texas Senate “Jordan deliberately set out to woo and win the Senate’s toughest members during the opening days of the four-month legislative session…Dorsey Hardeman was at the top of her list “(Rogers, 1998). Hardeman was a rural, conservative senator whose power was derived from his position as chairman of influential committees such as finance and state affairs. She was intent on forming alliances with those senators who wielded influence even if their agendas were contrary to her own. She was so successful in this endeavor that in her last year in the Texas senate, her colleagues selected Jordan as president pro tempore of the senate. As is customary, for that position, she served as Governor of Texas for a day. She was the first African American woman to serve in that capacity.
From the Texas senate, Jordan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and was selected as member of the House Judiciary Committee. As such, she spoke at the Watergate proceedings, where she gained national exposure for her defense of the constitution and condemnation of Nixon’s actions. In 1976, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention as the keynote speaker. During her tenure, she supported legislation such as the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 that instructed banks to expand their lending services to those in poor and minority communities.
During her final term in Congress, Jordan wrote her autobiography, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After retiring, Jordan went on to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1982, she became the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair of Public Policy. She continued to be politically active, serving as special counsel on ethics for Governor Ann Richards. She was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention again in 1992. Two years later, Jordan was asked to head the Commission on Immigration Reform by former President Bill Clinton and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in that same year.
Jordan was intensely private during her life and was never public about her sexual orientation or the relationship she had with Nancy Earl. In Barbara Jordan: American Hero, Jordan recalls meeting Earl on a camping trip in the 1960’s. Coupling this information with the known timeline of their relationship suggests that Jordan maintained this relationship in private for most, if not all, of her political career. Earl cared for and took care of Jordan as her health continued to fail. On January 17, 1996, Barbara Jordan died of pneumonia as a complication of leukemia. Her obituary in a Houston newspaper was the first public acknowledgement of her relationship with Nancy Earl.
The success of Barbara Jordan is testament to the achievement that is possible when supported by one’s family and community even when the social atmosphere in the American South opposed her success. She was adept at politics and it showed in the relationships that she nurtured with politicians of opposing political views such as Senator Hardeman. Her charm and intelligence could not be ignored. Those who interacted with her professionally or personally attest that her staunchest opponents were “won over” by Barbara’s personality. More than a decade after her death, she remains a hero.
Rogers, Mary Beth. 1998. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books.