A groundbreaking African-American politician, Barbara Jordan worked hard to achieve her dreams. She grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Houston, Texas. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Jordan was encouraged by her parents to strive for academic excellence. Her gift for language and building arguments was apparent in high school, where she was an award-winning debater and orator.
After graduating from Texas Southern University in 1956, Jordan continued her studies at Boston University Law School. She was one of the few black students in the program. Jordan returned to Texas after earning her degree and set up her law practice. At first, she worked out of her parents’ home. Before long, Jordan became active in politics by campaigning for the Democratic presidential ticket of John F. Kennedy and fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1962, Jordan launched her first bid for public office, seeking a spot in the Texas legislature. It took two more tries for her to make history.
In 1966, Jordan finally won a seat in the Texas legislature, becoming the first black woman to do so. She did not receive a warm welcome from her new colleagues initially, but she eventually won some of them over. Jordan sought to improve the lives of her constituents by helping usher through the state’s first law on minimum wage. She also worked to create the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1972, her fellow lawmakers voted her in as president pro tempore of the state senate. Jordan became the first African American woman to hold this post.
Advancing in her career, Jordan won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972. Announcing that she wouldn’t seek reelection, Jordan finished up her final term in 1979. She took some time to reflect on her life and political career, penning Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait (1979). Jordan soon turned her attention toward educating future generations of politicians and public officials, accepting a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin.
While her educational work was the focus of her later years, Jordan never fully stepped away from public life. She served as a special counsel on ethics for Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1991. The following year, Jordan once again took the national stage to deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention. Her health had declined by this point, and she had to give her address from her wheelchair. Still, Jordan spoke to rally her party with the same powerful and thoughtful style she had displayed 16 years earlier.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Jordan to head up the Commission on Immigration Reform. He also honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. She passed away two years later, on January 17, 1996, in Austin, Texas. Jordan died of pneumonia, a complication of her battle with leukemia.