It is with a heavy heart that I share the passing of a Howard and American giant, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Esq. A proud graduate of the Howard University School of Law, Mr. Jordan served on the Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2014.
He blessed us through his annual sermon at Rankin Chapel, sharing lessons gleaned from the richness of his life and the remarkable role he played in movements to win civil and human rights at home and abroad. In his final appearance in April 2019, he reminisced about “four old men” who shaped his life and told a story of the changes he both witnessed and participated in through the years.
To illustrate how slavery and Jim Crow had constrained the sense of possibility among so many, he recounted a 1947 conversation with his grandfather, Jim Griggs, who shared his life’s highest aspiration was to “be able to go to the bathroom indoors in a warm place once before I die.”
To prove his belief that our common humanity can transcend even the sharpest differences, he recalled his interaction with former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace was the first to send well wishes after the 1980 assassination attempt that almost took Jordan’s life. When they met at an event years later, Governor Wallace said, “Mr. Jordan: will you do something for me? Vernon Jordan, will you reach down and hug me?”
In this time of deep polarization, Mr. Jordan remained convinced that “the road may be long, but we can bring about change in this country in our laws and in the hearts of others.”
The final “old man” he described in his sermon was himself. His declaration to current and future generations was that, in an age of immediacy, we must remember that the work of justice takes time, and it is important to find your “your rock” – a consistent source of inspiration to weather the moments of doubt and difficulty that will surely come. I was not deserving of his kindness or his love. I will forever remain in gratitude that he was more father than mentor. He never told me what to do or how to do it, but rather he answered my queries with stories of his lived experiences that guided me ever so gently but purposefully.
His legacy as a civil rights activist and influential advocate for social justice will live on through the lives of the numerous students he mentored. Throughout the mountains and valleys of my presidency, Mr. Jordan has been a consistent support, offering both sage advice and constant encouragement. His love for this institution and our community are difficult to overstate. I have ordered flags across the Hilltop to be flown at half-mast in honor of this great man, who was also a father figure to me. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of this fallen Bison hero.
Wayne A.I. Frederick, M.D., MBA
Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery