The Keynote Speaker – Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, archives specialist at the National Archives in College Park.

This June, the National Archives Say it Loud! African American Employee Affinity Group, Houston Public Library’s African American Library at the Gregory School, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) teamed up to create an online exhibit celebrating one of the most eloquent and preeminent women to come out of the great state of Texas, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

Jordan, looking to the side with hands coming together in front of her face
Barbara Jordan, Oct 18, 1976 (Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Local ID: B6015-20)

The exhibit on Google Arts & Culture uses photographs, video, and textual records to detail the life, accomplishments, and firsts achieved by Barbara Jordan. Records were gathered from various National Archives and Presidential Library sites, including:

The Gregory School and HMRC also generously contributed records to the exhibit from collections within their holdings:

3 smiling women in skirts and tops, 2 are standing on either side of one kneeling in the middle
Young Barbara Jordan with her sisters. L to R: Barbara Jordan, Rose Mary McGowan, Bennie Craswell, c. 1950-1960s (African American Library at the Gregory School, MSS0080-PH014)

Barbara Jordan was born on February 21, 1936 in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. She showed early interest in public speaking while getting up in front of the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church as a child, and joining the debate team in high school. After completing studies at Texas Southern University, and Boston University School of Law, Jordan taught at Tuskegee University for a year, then returned to Houston to establish a private law firm.

Jordan first attempted to enter politics in 1962 with an unsuccessful run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. She tried again in 1964, but was ultimately victorious in 1966 when she gained a seat in the Texas Senate. With that victory, Jordan became the first Black woman to serve in the state senate, and the first African American to be elected to that legislature since Reconstruction. Jordan was part of another historic milestone when she became the first African American woman to be governor of a state -acting as Governor of Texas on June 10, 1972, as part of her duties as the president pro tempore of the state Senate.

President Johnson facing and standing w/Jordan and Vernon Jordan
Barbara Jordan, Vernon Jordan, and President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ Presidential Library, B4804-10)

In 1972, Barbara Jordan entered national politics when she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first woman elected in her own right to represent Texas. From then on, she had a prolific and productive career serving in the interests of her constituents:

  • member of the House Judiciary Committee
  • delivering a televised speech in support of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon
  • supported the Community Reinvestment Act, renewal of the Voting Rights Act, and Equal Rights Amendment
  • short listed as a potential running mate for President Jimmy Carter
  • delivered the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention
  • chair of the US Commission on Immigration Reform
Clinton leaning down to shake Jordan's hand, Jordan smiling at him. Hilary Clinton is clapping in the background
Barbara Jordan awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, Aug 8, 1994 (William Clinton Presidential Library)

For her exemplary service to the nation, Barbara Jordan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994. In addition to attaining the well publicized firsts in her public career, Jordan lived with multiple sclerosis and had a decades long relationship with her life partner, Nancy Earl. On January 17, 1996, Barbara Jordan passed away due to complications from pneumonia. She became the first African American to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery, and is interred near Stephen F. Austin.

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