Robert Jordan, 85; Civil Rights Activist And Librarian at Federal City College

Robert T. Jordan promoted reading at the college that later became part of the University of the District of Columbia. He met many civil rights leaders and participated in major marches.
Robert T. Jordan promoted reading at the college that later became part of the University of the District of Columbia. He met many civil rights leaders and participated in major marches. (Family Photo)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Robert Thayer Jordan, 85, a librarian and an activist who was director of library and media services at the old Federal City College, died Oct. 1 of bladder cancer at Riderwood Village in Silver Spring, where he lived.

To encourage reading at the land grant school, which later became part of the University of the District of Columbia, Mr. Jordan in 1968 set up "free and swap tables" and provided paperback copies of reading-list books. He also offered drop-off care for toddlers within the library.

After four years, Mr. Jordan took a leave of absence to work as deputy university librarian at Haile Selassie I University in Ethiopia. He and his wife spent two years working in the university's libraries and traveling throughout eastern and southern Africa. They also received grant funding for an innovation known as Books by Mail, which gave students performing community service in remote towns and villages access to books.

He returned to Federal City College in 1975 and taught library science and film studies to graduate students before retiring in 1983.

Mr. Jordan was born in Chicago and grew up in St. Joseph, Mich., and Denver. He was a student at Antioch College in Ohio when he attempted to enlist in the Army in 1943. After being given 4F status because of a heart murmur, he joined the Merchant Marines and served two years in the South Pacific.

At Antioch College, from which he later graduated, he joined with other students who successfully pressured the school's president and its board to bring African American students into the college. Edythe Scott came in 1943 and was followed two years later by her sister Coretta Scott King.

After marrying in 1947, Mr. Jordan and his first wife spent 15 months with the Scandinavian Seminar in Denmark studying the Folk School Movement and its vision for higher education in the liberal arts.

Later, the couple applied their Folk School experience to the growing civil rights movement in the South. They spent the summer of 1957 volunteering at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which held workshops that addressed community problems and served as a focal point for training early civil rights leaders. Mr. Jordan organized the school's library.

That summer the couple met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and almost all of the early leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mr. Jordan participated in the major civil rights marches, including in Selma and Birmingham, Ala., Jackson, Miss., and Washington.

In 1957, Mr. Jordan received a master's degree in library science from the University of California at Berkley and accepted a job as a librarian at Taft College in California. At the college, he built a basic collection of books and materials, and prepared a much-needed list of bibliographic resources.

For three years, he published "The 750 Best Books for College Libraries" in the journal College and Research Libraries.

His efforts were noticed by Verner W. Clapp, a former librarian of Congress who was president of the Council on Library Resources. He asked Mr. Jordan to join the council as his deputy. Mr. Jordan served with Clapp from 1960 to 1968.

After moving to the Washington area, Mr. Jordan was one of the founding members of the Carlyle Civic Association in Alexandria and a founding member of the Sierra Club. He helped organize the Prostate Cancer Support Group at George Washington University Hospital. He also was a member of and contributor to several peace and justice groups.

He was an active parishioner in the churches in which his wife of 36 years, the Rev. Katherine Jordan, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Washington, served. He most recently attended St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Beltsville. She survives him.

His marriage to Bessie Jordan ended divorce.

Other survivors include four children from his first marriage, Ingrid Hassen of Takoma Park, Vicki Jordan of Burnsville, N.C., and Eleanor Schopler and Thayer Jordan, both of Chapel Hill, N.C.; a daughter from his second marriage, Sara Carter of Silver Spring; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Jordan cared deeply about the world and its survival, his wife said. "He sought to contribute vitally, creatively and significantly -- to make a difference," she said.

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