barbara jordan, congresswoman jordan
AP Photo/Tim Sharp
Former U.S. Congresswoman
Barbara Jordan
following her address to the United We Stand
Conference in 1995.

Barbara Jordan, Barrier-Breaking Texas Politician, Renowned Speaker, Educator

February 21, 2010
by Haley A. Lovett
The first African American and the first woman to be elected to Congress from Texas, Barbara Jordan was a memorable speaker at the Nixon impeachment hearing and elsewhere, but her true passion may have been teaching.

Barbara Jordan’s Early Days

Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 21, 1936. Jordan attended public schools in Houston and was recognized for being a talented public speaker in high school. She went to Texas Southern University in Houston to earn her bachelor’s degree, and was a member of the debate team. She went on to earn her law degree from Boston University School of Law and passed the bar exam. After spending a year teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, Jordan began practicing law in Texas in 1959.

Jordan’s involvement in the political campaigns of others led to her passion for politics, and she ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and again in 1964, but without success.

Jordan’s Notable Accomplishments

In 1966 Jordan made history by becoming the first woman to be elected to the Texas state Senate, and the first African American to be elected to the position post-reconstruction. She remained a state senator until 1972.

In 1972 Jordan again made history by becoming the first woman and the first African American elected to Congress from Texas, holding a position in the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas’ 18th district until 1979 when she decided to retire.

In 1974, Jordan was on the House Judiciary Committee that was in charge of hearing evidence during Nixon’s impeachment. According to The New York Times it was during this hearing that her powerful speaking abilities and dedication to the constitution became apparent. After expressing that she felt the founding fathers had left her out of the constitution by mistake, and that through court decisions and amendments she had been included in “We, the people,” Jordan explained that she was “not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

In 1976 her speaking abilities were again proven when she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

After retiring from Congress, Jordan went on to become a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She stayed involved in politics after her retirement by advocating on various committees.

The Rest of the Story

During her later years Jordan struggled with her health; she was confined to a wheelchair, suffering from multiple sclerosis and Leukemia, and she died of pneumonia on Jan. 17, 1996, at 59 years old.

Although Barbara Jordan broke many barriers and served in many professions, perhaps her most influential ability was her gift for public speaking. When the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M made a list of the top 100 speeches of the last century, her Nixon impeachment speech and her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention both made the top 15. 

In 2009, the University of Texas erected a statue in honor of Jordan—it was the first statue there erected in honor of a woman. The Daily Texan quoted University of Texas president William Powers as saying that Barbara Jordan was, “a courageous leader who struck down barriers of race and gender. She was a great Texan, a great American, and a great human.”

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