Barbara Jordan Biography

A brief biography of Barbara Jordan, first African American woman to become Texas Congresswoman.

Barbara Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 in Houston, Texas. Her parents were Reverend Benjamin, a Baptist minister, and Arlyn Jordan. Barbara's mother was a great orator, but did not pursue a career, and instead devoted herself to being a wife and mother. Barbara recalled that her mother "was the most eloquent, articulate person I ever heard. If she had been a man, she would have been a preacher." Barbara inherited her great oratorical skills from her father and mother.

Barbara's grandfather, John Ed Patten, introduced her to literature, and philosophy and helped her improve her speaking skills. She attended Phillis Wheatley High School and participated in debates and public speaking engagements. She was the first place winner at the National Ushers Convention Oratorical Contest in Chicago, Illinois. She received the Girl of the Year Award and was became a well-known and respected public speaker throughout Texas.

In 1952, Barbara enrolled in Texas Southern University (TSU). Her tutor was Dr. Thomas Freeman, the University's debate coach. Barbara attributed much of her success as a speaker to him. She later recalled, "I thought I had superb diction and that no one would need to correct anything. Thomas Freeman found a flaw, and worked on it until it was corrected. I cannot overestimate the impact and influence Dr. Freeman had on my life." In 1956, Barbara Jordan graduated from TSU with honors.

After graduating from TSU, Jordan attended Boston University Law School and graduated in 1959. She passed both the Massachusetts and Texas bar examinations and set up a law practice in her parents' kitchen. After saving enough money she moved her firm to the Fifth Ward, a black section of Houston.

In 1966, Jordan ran for the Texas Senate and won the Democratic Primary with over 60 percent of the votes. She became one of two blacks in the state legislature. About working with the Texas politicians in the senate, she commented, "I wanted them to see me first-hand and not just read about this great thing that had happened in Houston. I wanted them to know I was coming to be a senator, and I wasn't coming to lead any charge. I was not coming carrying the flag and singing 'We Shall Overcome.' I was coming to work and I wanted to get that message communicated personally." Jordan served in the Texas senate for six years, during which she authored many bills that improved the quality of life for minorities, the poor and women. She was the first African American to preside over the state senate and chair a major committee, and the first freshman senator named to the Texas Legislative Council. On June 10, 1972, she became "Governor for a Day."

In 1972, Barbara Jordan was elected to serve in the Ninety-third Congress, becoming the first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas and the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the South. During her six-year term, Congresswoman Jordan introduced legislation that authorizes cities to receive direct Law Enforcement Assistance Administration grants, cosponsored legislation to extend the state ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment, and campaigned for the inclusion of Native Americans, Hispanics, Alaskan Natives, and Asian American language minorities in the 1965 Voting Rights Act extension.

In 1976, Jordan was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention at which she nominated President Jimmy Carter. She became the first African American to give a keynote speech at a major party's political convention. Her speech was dynamic and well received, in opening she said,

"One hundred and forty-four years ago, members of the Democratic Party met for the first time in convention to select their presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years to draft a party platform and nominate a presidential candidate. Our meeting this week continues that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker."

In 1978, Jordan left Congress and returned to private life as a professor at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin. She also continued to participate in public service activities. In 1990, the National Women's Hall of Fame voted her one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. In 1992, she was again the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention at which she nominated President Bill Clinton. In 1994, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Barbara Jordan died on January 17, 1996. She had earned a lasting reputation as a powerful force in American politics.

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