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Profile: Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)

A woman of many political first, Barbara Jordan was born Feb. 21, 1936, in Houston. She belonged to the honor society at Phyllis Wheately High School, then graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in 1956, and earned her law degree from Boston University in 1959.

After returning to Houston to practice law, Jordan ran for office and was elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, the first female African American to do so. In 1972, she was elected president pro-tempore of the Texas Senate, becoming the first African American elected to preside over a legislative body anywhere in the country. When Jordan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, she became the first African-American woman in Congress to represent a previously Confederate state.

In 1976, Barbara Jordan became the first African-American woman to deliver a keynote speech at a political convention, the Democratic National Convention, which she addressed again in 1992. In 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. After three terms in Congress, Jordan retired from politics in 1979 and joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin.

Jordan lived with her partner Nancy Earl in their home in Texas. The two met on a camping trip in the 1960s and lived together for two decades. Jordan relied on Earl to help in her day-to-day struggles with multiple sclerosis and leukemia. In 1976, they built a house in Austin. In July 1988, Earl saved Jordan's life when she nearly drowned after losing consciousness in their backyard swimming pool. Earl — long-time companion, co-owner of their home, executor of her estate, primary care giver and lifesaver — is often omitted from or trivialized in biographies of Jordan.

At her funeral in 1996, Jordan was eulogized by then President Clinton and former Texas Gov. Anne Richards, both of whom extended specific condolences to Earl. Jordan was buried at the Texas State Cemetery — an honor reserved for Texas heroes. She was the first African-American woman to be buried there.

Barbara Jordan: A Self Portrait. Jordan, Barbara, Doubleday, 1979.

Barbara Jordan: An Amercian Hero. Rogers, Mary Beth, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 2000.0

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