Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) rose to the national stage from Houston’s largely African-American Fifth Ward, becoming a public defender of the U.S. Constitution and a leading presence in Democratic Party politics for two decades. She was the first black woman elected to the Texas state senate and the first black Texan in Congress. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she gave the influential opening speech of Richard Nixon’s 1974 impeachment hearings.
Born February 21, 1936 in Houston, Texas, Jordan attended the segregated Phyllis Wheatley High School, where a career day speech by Edith Sampson, a black lawyer, inspired her to become an attorney. Jordan was a member of the inaugural class at Texas Southern University, a black college hastily created by the Texas legislature to avoid having to integrate the University of Texas. There Jordan joined the debate team and helped lead it to national renown. The team famously tied Harvard’s debaters when they came to Houston.
In 1956 she graduated magna cum laude and was accepted into Boston University’s law school. Three years later, she graduated with her law degree. She was only one of two African American women in her class. After passing the bar in Massachusetts and Texas she moved backed to Houston to open her law office.
Jordan won a seat in the Texas State Senate in 1966. During her last year in the state senate she was elected president pro tem by her colleagues. It allowed her to serve as governor for a day.
In 1979 Jordan retired from Congress. She became a professor and a public speaker.
In 1994 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton.
Jordan died in 1996 of leukemia-related pneumonia, leaving behind a legacy for women and African Americans.