LGBTQ+ History Month: Barbara Jordan

Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was a lawyer, teacher, civil rights leader, lawmaker, and first LGBTQ+ woman in Congress. Born in Houston, in Texas’s historically Black Fifth Ward, Jordan was the great-granddaughter of Edward Patton, one of the last African Americans to serve in the Texas House of Representatives before Jim Crow re-disenfranchised African American Texans in the 1880s. 

Because of segregation, Jordan could not attend the University of Texas at Austin and instead studied at historically Black Texas Southern University, graduating magna cum laude in 1956. She attended Boston University School of Law, and after teaching at the Tuskegee Institute for a year returned to Houston in 1960, where she opened a law practice.

In 1966 Jordan was elected as the first African American senator in the Texas Senate since the end of Reconstruction in 1883. In 1972 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first woman elected in her own right to represent Texas in the House. 

While in Congress, one of Jordan’s most famous actions was the 15-minute televised speech she gave to the members of the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings, on July 25, 1974. The speech is considered to be one of the greatest speeches in 20th-century American history and a decisive part of swaying public opinion in favor of impeachment:

“My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” 

News anchor Dan Rather said that Jordan “articulated the thoughts of so many Americans. Frankly, when she ended it, it was no doubt in my mind that we’d have a Senate investigation and that the President might very well be impeached or have to resign.”

Jordan had a successful career in Congress—she had a knack for deal-making and used the good will she cultivated to extend the minimum wage to cover nonunionized farmworkers and domestic workers. Jordan retired from politics in 1979 and spent her remaining years as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas. She was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, a role she had first filled in 1976.

Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, was Jordan’s companion from the 1970s to Jordan’s death in 1996. The two women met on a camping trip in the late 1960s. Earl occasionally acted as Jordan’s speechwriter and helped care for Jordan after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. While Jordan and Earl never addressed the nature of their relationship publicly, they had a strong, close partnership for many decades. In addition to being a brilliant politician, Jordan was both a groundbreaking African American and lesbian woman in Congress.

This June the National Archives is celebrating National Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to United States history and culture. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings. 

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