Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

Texan Barbara Jordan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first African American woman to represent a Southern state. Her relationship with life partner Nancy Earl became public knowledge after Jordan’s death in 1996.

Summary of Event

Pathbreaking political leader Barbara Jordan was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 and served three terms. Publicly silent about her private life, she rarely discussed her health and never mentioned her long-term relationship with Nancy Earl. Upon Jordan’s death, the Houston Chronicle identified Earl as Jordan’s “longtime companion,” and Jordan also was “outed” in The Advocate
Advocate, The;outing of Barbara Jordan[Jordan] newsmagazine. Outing;The Advocate and[Advocate]
[kw]Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South (Nov. 7, 1972)
[kw]Black Congresswoman from the South, Jordan Becomes First (Nov. 7, 1972)
[kw]Congresswoman from the South, Jordan Becomes First Black (Nov. 7, 1972)
[kw]South, Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the (Nov. 7, 1972)
African American politicians;Barbara Jordan[Jordan]
Politicians;African American
[c]Civil rights;Nov. 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South[0910]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South[0910]
Jordan, Barbara
Earl, Nancy

Representative Barbara Jordan addresses the Democratic National Convention on July 12, 1976.

(Library of Congress)

Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School and received degrees from Texas Southern University and Boston University. After passing the bar exam in Texas in 1959, she practiced law and first ran for the Texas House of Representatives in 1962. Losing that and a subsequent 1964 race, she won the 1966 race for state Senate and became the first African American woman in Texas to hold a seat there. She served in the Texas Senate from 1967 to 1973.

In addition to being elected president pro tem of the Texas Senate and becoming the first African American to preside over a state governing body, she is also credited with the passage of the 1971 redistricting act, which drew a new House district of central Houston. Easily defeating opponents in the primary and general elections, she won the seat in November of 1972 and left the Texas legislature for Washington, D.C., taking her seat officially on November 7.

In Congress, Jordan made an early name for herself during the House Judiciary Committee’s Nixon deliberations. Her opening statement began,

Earlier today we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, We, the people. It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Jordan’s comments garnered much publicity.

The next year, Jordan worked for expansion of the Voting Rights Act—an act that would include Texas. Despite opposition to the act in Texas and in the District of Columbia, Jordan prevailed. In 1976, she became the first black woman selected by a major political party for a keynote address. At the Democratic National Convention Democratic National Convention;Barbara Jordan address to[Jordan] she declared, famously, “Who will speak for the common good?” Placed on the list of vice presidential possibilities for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, Jordan declined nomination, and she later declined Carter’s offer to make her the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Jordan announced that she would retire from politics in 1979, saying that her reasons were “predicated totally on my internal compass directing me to divert my energy to something different and to move away from demands which are all-consuming.” She also had multiple sclerosis. Upon her retirement from politics, Jordan joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and served on several different corporate boards. She worked to raise money for Democratic candidates and causes. In 1992, at President Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill request, Jordan returned to politics, delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that year. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Presidential Medal of Freedom, Barbara Jordan
Medal of Freedom, Barbara Jordan in 1994 by Clinton.

Jordan lived with Nancy Earl in the home they built together in Austin. In addition to caring for Jordan through her struggle with leukemia and multiple sclerosis, Earl saved Jordan’s life in 1988 after Jordan lost consciousness in their backyard swimming pool. Earl has rarely commented publicly on her relationship with Jordan.


Barbara Jordan, a formidable orator and defender of civil rights, is remembered for her intellect and her commitment to justice. In 1990, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and, in 1994, she served as chair of the United States Commission on Immigration Reform. She received a total of thirty-one honorary doctorates. It is difficult to reconcile this legacy with her decision in 1986 to refuse to cosponsor federal GLBT rights legislation on the grounds that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not equivalent to discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. However, she consistently spoke of tolerance and of building community.

Once described by The Washington Post as “the first black woman everything,” Jordan accomplished another first, even after her 1996 funeral. She was laid to rest at the Texas State Cemetery, the first African American woman to be buried there. African American politicians;Barbara Jordan[Jordan]
Politicians;African American

Further Reading

  • Fenno, Richard F. Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Jordan, Barbara, and Shelby Hearon. Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.
  • LaVerne, MacCain Gill. African American Women in Congress: Forming and Transforming History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • Mendelsohn, James. Barbara Jordan: Getting Things Done. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.
  • Rogers, Mary Beth. Barbara Jordan: American Hero. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.

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