Barbara Charline Jordan is not your typical African-American historical household name, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Park. But her contributions to the Civil Rights movement and the Senate in the Deep South could not have had more impact in the mid-20th century. As the first African-American elected to the Senate in the state of Texas and the first Southern African-American female to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan paved a way for African-American women to gain recognition and respect in the government sector.
Born in Texas on February 21, 1936, Barbara’s early life consisted of putting education first. An honor student throughout grade school, Barbara, the daughter of a Tuskegee graduate Baptist preacher and public speaker, went on to attend college at Texas Southern University to earn a B.A. in Political Science, ultimately graduating with honors in 1956. Texas Southern also afforded Jordan the opportunity to join the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and to become a national champion debater, defeating Ivy League universities Yale and Brown. From there, Jordan went on to Boston University’s School of Law. After teaching for a year, Barbara returned to Texas to pass the bar in 1960 and began her career as a lawyer, starting her own private practice while working as a judiciary administrative assistant.
Working on the John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 would be the beginning of Jordan’s political career journey, where she managed a highly effective get-out-the-vote campaigns in some of Texas’ most popular African-American wards. After her experience campaigning for the future U.S. President, Jordan decided to campaign for the Texas House of Representatives, failing to be elected twice in 1962 and 1964. But these losses did not sway her motivation to be a political figure in Texas. In 1966, Jordan won a seat on the Texas Senate dominated by 30 male white counterparts, becoming the first African-American female to do so. In her Senate seat, Jordan campaigned for statewide minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination laws in business contracts, and many other monumental legislation.
In 1972, Jordan became the first woman to represent the state of Texas when she was elected to Congress, a push from President Lyndon B. Johnson personally. From there, Jordan’s political career became one of the few African-American female notable political careers, becoming a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the first African-American woman to give a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.
After a great political career, Barbara Jordan retired at the end of the 1970s and became an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and continued to advocate for legislation, including being a huge supporter for immigration reform, until her death in 1996.
Jordan’s accomplishments and historical political career has paved the way for African-American females in the world of politics, including Texas Congress member Sheila Jackson Lee and countless other women of color. Acknowledging her feats of motivation, determination and advocacy, Barbara Jordan was truly a woman of her political word, who words from her historical Democratic National Convention keynote address still reign true today:
“A lot of years passed since 1982, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask that a Barbara Jordan deliver a keynote address…but tonight, here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence her is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”
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