Another Distinguished Native Atlantan Transitions
Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
August 15, 1935 – March 1, 2021
Not even racially charged insults, taunts, boiling mad and racially tinged mobs, a bigot’s assassination attempt or moments of isolation could sway Atlanta native and one-time public housing resident Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr. from achieving personal success for himself but moreover the race in the civil rights, social/human rights and legal theaters. It would climax with his becoming the first (and only) “first friend” identity with a sitting President of the United States.
Jordan died Monday, March 1 at his Washington, D.C. home surrounded by his wife and family. He was 85.
Much like poet Langston Hughes described in his work “Mother to son” in 1922, life for the one-time resident of Atlanta’s University Homes public housing community of westside Atlanta was no “crystal stair.”
Raised by hard working and noble parents Vernon, Sr. and Mary Belle Jordan, Jordan, Jr. developed fast friends during his formative years in University Homes, which later became known as University-John Hope Homes which was built in 1939 and named for Morehouse’s first African-American president (1909-1936). One of his close childhood buddies was Lyndon Wade, another Atlanta native who grew up not far from University homes near the campus of Spelman College. In 1968, he was hired as executive director of the Atlanta Urban League three years before Jordan became executive director of the National Urban League (NUL) in 1971. At Wade’s homegoing service in 2017 on Morehouse College’s MLK chapel, Jordan applauded Wade’s 30-plus years of Urban League service and fondly remembers their 31 years of friendship. “We became friends in our youth,” he said. “I helped him create a football team we called the Walker Street Thunderbolts.”
Speaking of athletics, Jordan was not half-bad himself either on the neighborhood sandlot or the hardwood at his high school alma-mater David T. Howard, the second established for Black students. D. T. Howard actually started in 1923 as an elementary school, then became a junior high school en route to becoming a diploma-granting high school in 1949. One of its elementary school students was Martin Luther King, Jr., who attended from 1936 to 1940.
Jordan was among the first high school students there and graduated with honors 1953. In the fall of that same year, he left Atlanta for Indiana’s DePauw University, joining four other Blacks on the campus of 1, 972 students. The odds didn’t faze him, however. He became active, played Tiger basketball, and engaged in oratorical contests, a precursor to his eventual profession of law. “DePauw University nurtured my growth and maturity. I made lasting friendships here”, he said years later.” if I had my life to live over again, I would return to this place.” While still enrolled at DePauw, he was initiated into the Zeta Phi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity of Indianapolis, Indiana, exchanging handshakes with other “Ques” like Reverend Jesse Jackson; NBA stars Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal; poet Langston Hughes; Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Joe Black; college basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines; civil rights luminaries Bayard Rustin; Dr. Benjamin Hooks; one time NAACP head Roy Wilkins; Jesse Hill, Jr.; Clinton E. Warner, Sr.; Dr. Clinton E. Warner, Jr.; and John B. Smith, Sr. and John B. Smith, Jr. (Atlanta Inquirer); and many of the frat’s other 250, 000 members. In 1958, Jordan matriculated to Howard University law school where he earned his “Esq” wings. He said Howard University helped him find a sense of purpose and described the experiences of studying at DePauw, a predominately white college and at Howard University, a predominately Black campus as a “perfect bookend to his education.”
One bit of unexpected education did occur between his DePauw and Howard days on a trip back home in the late ‘50s. Through his mother, owner-operator of her own catering business, she got him a job as chauffeur and cook for a former Atlanta Mayor named Robert Foster Maddox. Maddox Park on Donald Hollowell Parkway (formerly Bankhead Highway in southwest Atlanta) is named for him. Maddox was stunned when he caught Jordan reading books from his vast library. In front of him, Maddox would then relate to friends and family that “Vernon can read.”
In 1960, Jordan graduated from Howard for Atlanta and secured a position with the law firm of Donald Hollowell, a native of Wichita, Kansas, graduate of Tennessee’s Lane College and Loyola University where he earned his “Esq” before moving to Atlanta to hang his shingle. Hollowell was known to provide breaks for novice law school graduates. It didn’t long for Jordan to experience his baptism of legal fire when he assisted Hollowell in a challenge against the state to break segregation laws on Georgia’s white college campuses by winning admission to the University of Georgia for Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes. When a federal judge, Elbert Tuttle, ordered UGA to admit Hunter and Holmes, Jordan fearlessly escorted the couple through a howling mob of students and other drooling bigots to UGA’s admissions office in 1961. Twenty-four year later, Jordan would return to UGA as the first speaker at the annual Hunter-Holmes lecture series at UGA, established in 1985.
In 1971, Jordan became the fifth executive director of the National Urban league, succeeding the late Whitney Young. In 1980, while serving the post, an assassination attempt was made against Jordan in Fort Wayne, Indiana by an avowed racist identified as John Wayne Franklin, who shot him in the back while being dropped off at a hotel. Somehow, Franklin, who later bragged about being the sniper, was acquitted of murder charges but was later executed in 2013 for killing two Black Missouri joggers.
After dodging the grim reaper, Jordan retired from the Urban league in 1982 and turned his attention toward corporate legal matters which intrigued him to attempt breaking color barriers of corporate boards. His contacts as Urban league director also afforded him an opportunity to befriend Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas. After Clinton’s election to the presidency in 1992, Jordan became co-chair of Clinton’s transition team which led to service as a close advisor to the new President and created Jordan’s moniker as “first friend”.
But even being this close to the POTUS didn’t create a hedge of protection for Jordan. In 1998, he found himself tangled in the sexual misconduct case between Clinton and an intern named Monica Lewinsky. Jordan denied any direct or in-direct involvement and a final report on the case never mentioned Jordan’s name or any alleged misconduct on his part.
The case didn’t diminish Jordan’s effectiveness. He remained one of DC’s leading power brokers and one of the nation’s leading lawyers. He also continued to mentor younger Black leaders in DC but never lost his Georgia roots. In fact, Wayne A. I. Frederick, recently selected as Howard University’s 17th president, described Jordan as a “father, not just a father figure to him” who “never tried to tell him what to do.” He saw Jordan as a man who carried a big stick while never losing the common touch. Frederick, an HU grad, says a huge tribute to the man called “a son of Howard” is being planned. Flags on the college’s campus are flying at half-staff.
As of Wednesday March 3, no announcement of homegoing plans had been released by Jordan’s family.
Last updated on March 4, 2021