This month, we have the honor of presenting two Exemplars born on the same day, February 21, but in different years. Both excelled in their respective fields: public service and classical music. Both were born in the South, but made their marks farther afield: one primarily in Washington, DC, one primarily in New York City.
The parallels continue as both displayed dedication, discipline, and perseverance. While only one might be said to have been blessed with a God-given ‘gift’, but both made use of what they were given to the best of their abilities. Both made their contributions, and both have left their mark.
For women everywhere, they are inspirations. Enjoy meeting Ms. Price and Ms. Jordan…
Born in 1936 and raised in a poor black neighborhood in Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan was the daughter of a Baptist minister.
Encouraged by her parents to strive for academic excellence, she graduated with honors from her high school in Houston. Prohibited from attending the University of Texas at Austin due to segregation policies then in place, Ms. Jordan attended and graduated from Texas Southern University in 1956. She then continued her studies at Boston University School of Law.
After earning her degree, she returned to Texas and set up her law practice. Soon thereafter, Ms. Jordan became active in politics, campaigning for the 1960 Democratic presidential ticket of John F. Kennedy and fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1962, Ms. Jordan launched her first bid for public office, campaigning for a seat in the Texas legislature. In 1966, after two unsuccessful bids, Ms. Jordan became the first African American woman in the Texas legislature. She was then elected to the Texas Senate in 1968.
In 1972, she ran for national office, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from the South. While in Congress, Ms. Jordan gained national prominence, her powerful, measured, and compelling voice echoing through the chambers–and across television airwaves–as she called for the impeachment of President Nixon during the Watergate hearings.
A strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, she worked tirelessly for legislation against racial discrimination, and helped establish voting rights for non-English-speaking citizens.
After a storied career in politics in Washington, DC, she returned to the University of Texas, 30 years after she was denied admission as a student. This time, she walked onto campus as an adjunct professor, thank you very much, and taught ethics.
Look to Barbara Jordan as a life well-lived in her public service
“You have got to be able to love yourself – love yourself strongly, and not let anybody disabuse you of your self-respect.” – Barbara Jordan
* * * * * * * *
The year was 1927. Construction began on Mount Rushmore. Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic. “The Great Mississippi Flood”, the most destructive flood in US history, hit the southeastern part of the country. And on February 21, in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, Leontyne Price was born.
The granddaughter of two Methodist ministers in the deeply segregated South, Ms. Price began singing in church. When she was five or six years old, her parents purchased her a toy piano. “I was center stage from the time I received that toy piano…I had the disease then,” said Ms. Price later in life.
Ms. Price was an excellent student at Oak Park Vocational High School and later enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts in Wilberforce, Ohio. She focused broadly on music education, but the faculty, aware of the gift she possessed, persuaded her to concentrate on voice. After graduation, she left for New York City to attend The Juilliard School on a full scholarship.
At Juilliard, Ms. Price studied under the tutelage of her beloved vocal instructor, Florence Page Kimball. Ms. Price’s beautiful lyric soprano voice landed her feature roles in many of the school’s operas. During this time, composer Virgil Thomson saw one of her performances and immediately cast her in one of his productions.
Ms. Price rose to international fame during a period of racial unrest in the 1950s and 60s. In 1955, when she was engaged to sing the lead for the NBC’s production of Puccini’s Tosca, some local affiliates were outraged and refused to air the performance. Nevertheless, her dramatic portrayal and unparalleled vocal performance were a critical success. Other televised operatic roles soon followed with her performance of Verdi’s Aida for the first time in 1957. Her success led her to perform in Vienna, and in 1960, to the stage of La Scala, opera’s most revered venue.
Ms. Price was the first American of African descent to become a leading prima donna at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Her honors are numerous: the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), a multitude of honorary degrees, and nineteen Grammy Awards, including a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, more than any other classical singer. She received one of the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008.
Ms. Price came from an Old Money family who valued education and the arts. She went on to become one of the most acclaimed musical artist of the 20th century, in spite of the prejudice and segregation that haunted America during the 1950s and 1960s.
Her voice is something words cannot describe, only ears can truly appreciate, and only hearts can understand. Suffice to say that at her final performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, her lifelong commitment to her art was truly appreciated. The audience gave her a standing ovation…which lasted for half an hour.
If you love music and think you might commit your life to it, listen to the work of Leontyne Price and be inspired. Read more about her and her career.
“Who I am is the best I can be.” – Leontyne Price