Today in History – February 21 UPDATED

On February 21, 1936, Barbara Jordan was born in Houston, Texas, to later become the nation’s first African American state senator since 1883.

Barbara Jordan, Congresswoman, 1972-78. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, between 1972 and 1978. Bernard Gotfryd Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Jordan was born into a family of three sisters in Houston, Texas. She graduated from segregated Phillis Wheatley High School in 1952. In 1956, she received her bachelor’s degree from Texas Southern University. Jordan received her law degree from Boston University and passed the bar in Massachusetts and Texas in 1959. In 1960, Jordan opened a practice in Houston and worked as an administrative assistant to a county judge to supplement her income. She tried to further her political career in 1962 and 1964 by running for the Texas House of Representatives and lost.

In 1966, Jordan won a new seat, formed due to redistricting, in the Texas Senate. She became the first African American state senator since 1883 and the first Black woman elected to the Texas State Senate. During her time in the state senate, Jordan pushed for bills leading to the establishment of the state’s first minimum wage law, anti-discriminatory laws in business, and the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission. On March 28, 1972, Jordan was elected President Pro Tempore of the Texas Legislature, becoming the first Black woman to preside over a legislative body in America. Later that year, on June 10th, Jordan served as acting governor for a day when the governor and lieutenant governor were out of the state, becoming the first Black chief executive in the nation.

[Keynote Address by Representative Barbara Jordan, Democratic National Convention, July 12, 1976]. Warren K. Leffler, photographer; U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1972, Jordan ran for Congress and won. She became the first African American elected to Congress from the Deep South in the 20th century. As she had during her time in the Texas legislature, Jordan advocated for civil rights and women’s rights. She was reluctant to join any group or caucus. She commented, “I am neither a black politician, nor a woman politician. Just a politician, a professional politician.” Jordan served on the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Operations. While serving on the Judiciary Committee in 1974, she gave the opening remarksExternal on the procedures of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, which brought her recognition and respect as a national politician. In 1975, Jordan sponsored the expansion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

In 1976, Jordan became the first African American and the first woman to deliver the keynote speechExternal at the Democratic Party National Convention. She then campaigned for Jimmy Carter during his presidential campaign. President Carter considered her for a cabinet position; however, she only wanted the position of Attorney General, which Carter decided to give to Griffin B. Bell.

Jordan did not seek reelection for a fourth term in Congress in 1978 so that she could focus on addressing issues in Texas. She was appointed Lyndon Johnson Chair in National Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. She delivered speeches at the 1992 and the 1994 Democratic National Conventions. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Commission on Immigration Reform. In 1990 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York.

On January 17, 1996, Jordan died from pneumonia, a complication of leukemia, in Austin, Texas. Barbara Jordan was the first African American to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.