On Vernon Jordan

Activism, business leadership, and political action are all characteristic of Vernon E. Jordan Jr.’s long career.1 He earned a law degree from Howard University in 1960 and went on to be a civil rights lawyer, executive director of the United Negro College Fund (1970), executive director of the National Urban League (1971–81), and a political advisor. But before starting law school, Jordan first chose to pursue his undergraduate degree at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.2 As he shares in this clip, he was the only African American student in his class.

DePauw had a transformative impact on Jordan’s life and his career, and as a young lawyer he helped to open more avenues for African Americans to pursue higher education. After graduating from Howard, he quickly became involved in challenging the University of Georgia in Athens’s (UGA) decision to deny admission to Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. In January 1961, within months of earning his law degree, Jordan ensured that both Hunter and Holmes were accepted to UGA. They became the university’s first African American students.3

Jordan’s decision to attend DePauw was also significant for his family, instilling joy, pride, and concern. Fifty-nine years after his first semester of college, on April 9, 2012, Jordan sat down with the Smithsonian’s Marc Pachter to talk about his life, motivation, and work. Here he describes his choice and recalls the support he received from his brother, mother, and father.

This interview was recorded as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Living Self-Portrait series, a series dedicated to capturing personal narratives of influential figures in American history. The full interview is available on the National Portrait Gallery’s YouTube page: https://youtu.be/chxO0gYrW4U. 

The National Portrait Gallery’s collection includes a 2005 oil on linen portrait of Vernon Jordan by artist Bradley Stevens. To view and to learn more about this painting, visit http://ow.ly/YbpZB. 
By Charles Zange, AV Archive Cataloguer

1 Living Self-Portrait: Vernon Jordan, original interview video, National Portrait Gallery, AV.2012.EDU.1, recorded April 9, 2012.
2 “Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.,” Contemporary Black Biography 35 (Detroit: Gale, 2002), Biography in Context, online, accessed February 2, 2016.
3 Amanda Nash, “Charlayne Hunter-Gault (b. 1942),” New Georgia Encyclopedia: Arts & Culture, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/charlayne-hunte..., accessed February 8, 2016.