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Barbara Jordan

BARBARA JORDAN (1936–1996)

Edward A. Patton, one of the last African-Americans elected to the Texas Legislature during the Reconstruction Era, argued against a proposed poll tax during an 1891 debate in the House of Representatives. The following year, Patton lost his bid for re-election and was forced to flee the state. What a difference 75 years can make. In 1966, a federal court struck down the Texas poll tax. In that same year, Barbara Jordan, Patton’s great-granddaughter, won election to the Texas Senate, becoming the first African-American state senator since Reconstruction.

Born in 1936 in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Jordan grew up unconscious of the limitations that segregation placed on her and other African-Americans. Blessed with a strong voice and a powerful intellect, Jordan was a top student and star debater at Wheatley High School and Texas Southern University. But when Jordan entered Boston University Law School in the fall of 1956 — one of only six women, including two African-Americans in a class of approximately 250 — she realized that she was not the equal of the white students in knowledge or experience, according to Barbara Jordan: American Hero.

“I realized that the best training available in an all-black instant university was not equal to the best training one developed as a white university student. Separate was not equal; it just wasn’t,” Jordan wrote in her 1979 autobiography, A Self-Portrait.

Through hard work during long nights of study, Jordan brought up her grades and received her law degree. She passed the Texas bar exam in December 1959 and began practicing law from her parents’ home in Houston. But Jordan soon heard the siren call of politics. In the fall of 1960, she volunteered to work in the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson campaign headquarters in Houston and spoke frequently on behalf of the ticket.

In 1962, Jordan ran as a liberal Democrat for a Harris County seat in the Texas House. Although Jordan drew strong support from Houston’s African-American community, she lost in the primary and again suffered defeat in 1964. The problem was Texas still elected legislators based on a countywide vote.

Jordan was able to expand her base beyond the Fifth Ward in 1965, when Harris County Judge Bill Elliott named her as his assistant. Jordan was the first African-American to work at the Harris County Courthouse other than in a janitorial position. She used her high profile with the county to boost an effort to integrate Houston public schools, helping to organize an African-American student boycott of the schools to put pressure on the school board. The mass absences resulted in losses of state funding for the school district, prompting its board to accelerate desegregation.

When Jordan decided to run for the state Senate in 1966, there were new legislative districts. In 1965, a three-judge federal court ordered the Texas Legislature to redraw the districts to meet the “one person, one vote” requirement. The panel also held as unenforceable a constitutional provision limiting a county to one senator. When the Legislature redrew the lines, Harris County had three new Senate districts, including one that took in Houston’s downtown business area, the ship channel and the Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards. Jordan won in that district, defeating state Rep. Charlie Whitfield in the Democratic primary.

Jordan’s time in the Senate was marked by several “firsts.” She was the first African-American senator to chair a major committee, Labor and Management Relations, and the first freshman ever to be named to the Texas Legislative Council. She also was responsible for two major changes in Texas law, sponsoring bills that provided the first increase in a dozen years in the benefits paid workers injured on the job and that established, for the first time, a minimum wage in Texas.

In November 1972, Jordan won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and soon became a national figure. During a 1974 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Jordan emphasized the importance of the Constitution in considering articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. The following year, she was instrumental in passing legislation broadening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cover Mexican-Americans.

Jordan scored another first in 1976, when she became the first African-American to be a keynote speaker at a national political convention. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention that year and at the 1992 convention.

Tiring of life as a public official, Jordan opted not to seek re-election in 1978 and returned to Austin to teach at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. By this time, Jordan was struggling with weakening of her legs and the muscles in her right eye caused by multiple sclerosis. But Jordan remained active, speaking out against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 and chairing the Commission on Immigration Reform in 1994 and 1995.

Illness prevented Jordan from seeing the completion of her work on the commission. She died in early 1996.

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