The Black lesbian who made American history (repeatedly)

The Black lesbian who made American history (repeatedly)
Austin, Texas, April 26, 2019. Bronze statue of Barbara Jordan, American lawyer, educator and politician, at University of Texas, Austin campus. Photo: Shutterstock

When Barbara Jordan was born in Houston’s Fifth Ward 87 years ago, there weren’t over 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills making their way through Texas’s legislative chambers like there are today, but her state was plenty hostile to Black, queer people like her. Her life in politics—filled with firsts—sought to expand civil rights for all as much as she could. 

Jordan was the first Black woman—and one of the first Black people—elected to Congress from the South. Growing up attending segregated public schools in Houston, Texas, it must have seemed like an impossible dream. 

But “impossible” and Jordan didn’t mix. If it hadn’t been done before, she was ready to be the one to do it. 

There hadn’t been a Black state senator in Texas since 1883? Jordan became a Texas state senator in 1966, the first Black woman to ever be a Texas state senator. No Black woman in U.S. history had ever presided over a legislative body? Jordan was elected president pro tem of the Texas Senate in 1972. 

Before becoming a politician, Jordan was a lawyer, inspired to follow that path by another Black woman, trailblazing lawyer Edith S. Sampson, who gave a speech at career day at Jordan’s high school. Jordan earned her law degree from Boston University as one of only two Black women in her class and returned to Texas, opening a practice in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

Jordan was called to go to the national stage. In 1973 she took her seat in Congress, one of only two Black people in the House of Representatives. She became the first Black woman ever to serve on the prestigious House Judiciary Committee.

Jordan was adept at public speaking, a gift she inherited from her mother, who was also accomplished at it. Jordan honed this craft in high school, winning a national debate contest in 1952. She continued practicing the art of debate at Texas Southern University on a team that tied Harvard University’s.

As an orator, she made a name for herself as a junior congresswoman. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, she was part of the group considering articles of impeachment against former president Richard Nixon for crimes associated with the Watergate Scandal in 1974. Jordan delivered opening remarks supporting impeachment that was so impactful it elevated her profile to a nationally known name.

“My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” Jordan said to those in the room and the more than 80 percent of Americans watching on television. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” She concluded that if her fellow committee members did not impeach the president, “perhaps the eighteenth-century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder.”

Jordan also was the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention – in 1976. 

“Many seek only to satisfy their private work, wants, to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces—that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups,” she said. “If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good? Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation?”

“We must not become the ‘New Puritans’ and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor,” Jordan continued.

“There is no executive order; there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.”

Jordan’s work as a congresswoman included accomplishments for social equity, introducing civil rights amendments to legislation authorizing law enforcement assistance grants, and sponsoring legislation to expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to include Latin, Native, and Asian Americans. 

All the while, she had to walk a delicate line standing alone in the House in her identities. She said in 1975, “I am neither a Black politician nor a woman politician, just a politician, a professional politician.”

She served until 1979 and returned to Texas to be a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas and an advisor to Texas’ then-governor, Ann Richards (D). She received nearly two dozen honorary degrees

She likely didn’t seek reelection due to the advancement of her multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 1973 in her late 30s. Her life partner of over 20 years, Nancy Earl, was by her side as her caretaker. Former president Bill Clinton (D) wanted to nominate her to the Supreme Court, but she was too ill when he got the chance. He did appoint her to lead the Commission on Immigration Reform. 

Clinton awarded Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, two years before her passing at 59. In his remarks at the White House ceremony, he called her “the most outspoken moral voice of the American political system.” 

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