Kennedy’s Pioneering Martha Jordan

Hello from the History Department.

As we move forward into the new year, looking toward new projects and properties, let’s not forget all of those who came before us — like Mrs. Jordan at the Kennedy School.

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Martha Beatrice (Ashford) Jordan taught Kindergarten at Kennedy School from the fall of 1948 until June 1962, when she left at age 51 to help organize the Head Start program in Portland. She was a true pioneer, being the first black teacher to work in primarily white public school in Portland.

Martha was born in 1913 in Kosciusko, MS, and was raised by her mother, Dora Ashford, a Mississippi native who worked as a cook in a private (white) home in town. Martha’s older brother Otha was an auto mechanic with his own shop.

Martha’s talents, family support and ambition led her to Rust College in Holly Springs, MS, where she earned her teaching degree. By 1940, she was working as a music teacher at Kosciusko. By this point, she had been married for a short time and had a son, but her husband, a Mr. Turner, passed away (circumstances unknown).

By the time World War II broke out, Martha had remarried, this time to George Walter Jordan. Along with their son, the family moved to Portland for better employment opportunities in the war-time Kaiser shipyards. George easily found work, but Martha was turned down by all the Portland schools, despite her years of teaching experience, because she was black. The family settled in the Kaiser company town of Vanport (on Portland’s northern boundary). The Vanport school wouldn’t hire Martha as a teacher either, so she took a job as school janitor at the Vanport daycare center. Soon, though, Vanport teachers recognized how good Martha was with the little children, and when one of the teachers became sick, Martha was asked to step in. She excelled and retained a teaching position there through war’s end and beyond.

On Memorial Day 1948, the historic Vanport Flood destroyed the city. Martha and her family, like all other residents, lost everything. And with the destruction of the community, including the school, she lost her job. So she went again to Portland Public Schools, asking for a teaching position. And yet again, she was turned down. She took matters into her own hands and spoke directly with Principal Wright at Kennedy School. He admired her credentials and experience and the school needed a kindergarten teacher, so she was hired.

Martha Jordan thrived at Kennedy, as did her students – she instilled acceptance, respect and community in her Kindergarteners, infusing music and kindness into all of her class lessons and activities. She remained a valued staff member at Kennedy until 1962. Her students recall that in her room, Mrs. Jordan was never far from her piano and constantly had a song at the ready.

Martha Jordan passed away in Portland not too long after McMenamins Kennedy School’s 1997 grand reopening. Her legacy lives on in her former pupils as well as in the Martha Jordan event space at the Kennedy School.

6 Comments

  1. Liz Kennedy on January 3, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    Interesting! Thank you.

  2. Leon on January 3, 2019 at 5:30 pm

    Always appreciate the history of your properties. Nice work.

  3. Leon Kennedy on January 3, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    Always appreciate the history of your properties. Nice work.

  4. Sharon Reimers on January 3, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    SHE WAS MY KINDERGARDEN TEACHER IN 1950 AND I REGRET NOT TELLING HER HOW MUCH I LIKED HER.

    Sharon Reimers
    Gladstone, OR

  5. Donnea Sims on January 4, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing this history of a woman of color and an educator who persisted against all odds. I’m sure she was a positive influence on many children and their parents, as are so many teachers today.

  6. Marion Clair (Benton) Maiden name on March 1, 2019 at 8:13 am

    As a former student of Mrs. Jordan, I just found this article about her today. I’m so glad that I did as Mrs. Jordan made an indelible impression on me as one of her lucky kindergarten students at Kennedy Elementary School. Although I came from a racially prejudiced family, my parents embraced Mrs. Jordan as the wonderful teacher and positive influence she was. She was one of the kindest and most capable teachers I ever had. Apart from the difficulty she had before getting a teaching position at Kennedy, it didn’t end there.. My parents told me how disgusted they were to learn of another Kennedy teacher, Miss Barden, who would walk out of teachers’ meetings if Mrs. Jordan were attending to demonstrate her disdain for an African-American teacher being employed there. I eventually became a public school teacher myself, and often thought of the patience and nurturing Mrs. Jordan always had for her students. Only recently have I begun to understand the enormous obstacles and prejudice she had to overcome to achieve the well-deserved reputation she earned as an educator.

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