While growing up in a segregated neighborhood of Houston, Texas, Willie C. Jordan Jr. was taught at a young age to do well in school and avoid trouble.
“My siblings and I didn’t have the option to fail,” says Jordan, who was raised in a large 12-sibling family. “Our parents always warned us that the only option under their roof was to succeed.”
Yet trouble had a way of finding him when he ventured into the white neighborhoods to deliver groceries.
“As a high-schooler, I had a job working for a grocery store owned by an Italian family,” Jordan says. “They faced a lot of problems with harassment, and I wasn’t spared from those experiences.”
One incident that stands out in his memory occurred when a group of bullies attempted to steal his groceries and run him into a ditch. He fended them off with his three-wheeled delivery bike and continued on with his job. Just another day in the life of a Black teenager in the 1950s.
“At the time, I only weighed 98 pounds and couldn’t fight them off, so I had to protect myself and my job,” Jordan recalls. “I wasn’t trying to be a bad guy, but the stolen groceries would have come out of my paycheck.”
Determined to make his parents proud, Jordan focused on his studies at the segregated Phillis Wheatley High School, where he discovered an affinity for drawing. To this day, he distinctly recalls the very moment when he found his path to architecture.
“My drafting teacher told me, ‘Son, you’re good in art, but you’re going to starve to death. Get into architecture so you can get paid,’” Jordan says. “I never considered architecture at the time, but the thought of making a good living really appealed to me.”
Jordan’s hard work paid off when he was accepted to The University of Texas at Austin when it opened its doors to Black students in 1956. He soon journeyed to the Forty Acres with a small suitcase and a dark cloud of foreboding lingering over his head.
“This was only a year after Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi, so I was very worried about what could happen to me,” Jordan says. “But I couldn’t afford to not go to UT because of my scholarship and the in-state tuition, and there were no other options because other architecture schools were not integrated. Later, I came to find out It was a blessing in disguise.”
With thoughts of lynching and men in white pointed hats weighing heavily on his mind, Jordan kept his nose to the grindstone in his architecture classes. The experience proved to be frustrating as he and his fellow classmates struggled while their white counterparts soared.
“We were hustling and making bad grades while they were making good grades,” Jordan says. “We came to find out a few years after graduation that fraternities were getting exams prior to test day, and they were paying others to take their tests. When spring break came around, they’d get in their fancy cars and drive to Mexico or fly to Arkansas while we stayed in our off- campus barracks.”
Growing up in a segregated Texas town, he was accustomed to this way of life, but he didn’t expect to feel unwelcome on the Black side of town, just east of the I-35 dividing line.
“We couldn’t go off campus to the west side, and many parts of the east side didn’t welcome us because they thought we were snooty UT students, so we were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Jordan knew he couldn’t go home without a degree, so he stayed the course and hit his stride when the rigor of second-year architecture classes leveled the field. All students—Black and white—spent many sleepless nights studying for tests and preparing their presentations for a scrupulous board of professors.
“The first year was disastrous, but once I got into the second year, I knew what was needed to either pass my classes or flunk out. With my artistic background, I was able to make all the right decisions, and my professors and classmates realized that I was becoming one of the better designers.”
With graduation just around the corner, Jordan faced another roadblock when the military draft came calling. He soon joined the U.S. Army Reserves, taking an unexpected year-long break from his studies to serve his country. Despite the many setbacks, Jordan defeated the odds and earned his degree in 1963. He later passed the Texas Licensure Examination on his first try and went on to work for many architects across the state—including the legendary John Chase.
“It has been a rewarding career,” says Jordan, who cofounded his own firm and became one of Houston’s top architects. I’ve been able to do some good jobs in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and many other cities across the state. I’ve also been able to work on my high school, my church and serve in the community in a way that makes me feel like a good citizen.”
Now enjoying the retired life in Houston with his wife of 40 years—who worked as a college professor for many years before her retirement— Jordan keeps busy with some consulting work and community service. He especially enjoys mentoring students at local high schools and universities, sharing some life lessons he learned along his way of becoming one of the first Black architects to be licensed in Texas.
“I tell them they have to have a personal interest in a subject in order to really understand it,” says Jordan, who is the proud father of two talented sons: one a money market trader, the other a dentist. “To be successful—especially in a challenging field like architecture—you need to have a passion and be willing to make sacrifices.”
A member of the Precursors—the group of alumni who hold the distinction of being the first Black undergraduates to integrate the UT Austin campus—Jordan occasionally visits his alma mater. While gazing at the sites where he witnessed cross burnings, sit-ins and daily harassments, he recalls a life lesson that served him well along his journey.
“You have to look high and move forward in the face of racism,” Jordan says. “We didn’t have time to sit and ponder our problems. As they say in football, you take what’s given and use it to the best of your abilities to prevail.”