Community leader and “relentless” social justice activist

LEROY JORDAN Dec. 21, 1941-Sept. 5, 2020

Leroy Jordan’s mother worked in school cafeterias and his father worked for the railroad. While he didn’t follow either of their paths directly, both schools and railroads would become themes in his life.

Jordan was born in Murphysboro. A talented athlete, he was inducted into his high school’s football hall of fame. Jordan attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where Black men were being recruited for a program to train them to be teachers.

Jordan was the first Black male elementary classroom teacher in District 186. (A Black male physical education teacher was hired a short time before him.) He taught at Iles Elementary in Springfield from 1965 until 1969. Jordan served as a District 186 school board member from 1976 until 1982. He was the second Black person to do so. He served multiple terms as school board president. As a member of District 186 staff, he was promoted to assistant superintendent for research, assessment and development in the ’90s.

After the district faced a lawsuit alleging segregation, a judge ruled in 1976 that steps be taken to fix discriminatory practices. A consent decree called for the hiring of more Black teachers and a new bus system was created to diversify the racial makeup of schools. “He was instrumental in working with the bus company to make sure that happened equitably,” said Jordan’s wife, Johnetta. Johnetta said before arriving in Springfield the couple lived in Hopkins Park, an impoverished community near Kankakee. “That increased his interest in kids, because the kids there needed a lot.”

In between his positions with District 186, Jordan served two decades at Sangamon State University, now University of Illinois Springfield, beginning in 1972. He was the only SSU African American academic dean. He later became Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs. UIS has created the Leroy Jordan Social Justice Scholarship in his honor.

Jan Droegkamp was interviewing for a position at SSU when she first met Jordan. She had an infant at the time, whom she had taken with her. Jordan didn’t bat an eye. He scooped the baby up. “I thought, oh! My boss – the dean of my college – is walking my little baby around, this looks like the best place to work.” Jordan was a strong, inclusive leader who made a point of listening to his staff, said Droegkamp. “I think everyone thought that they were his favorite.”

“He was a big proponent of giving back to the community. It was an expectation of all of us who worked with him that we too would be on a board, or be in a project, or do something with the community in terms of social justice,” she said. “Everything was about family and giving back to the community.”

Jordan was surrounded by female energy at home, where he had four daughters. “He loved it, he was spoiled,” said daughter Laura Jordan, who teaches at Graham Elementary. She said children tend to gravitate toward her, as they did toward her father.

Jordan had two grandsons he in turn spoiled with fishing trips and sweets. He was heavily involved in his family’s sports endeavors. His grandson, Christian Jordan, played soccer and his grandfather was the team’s biggest cheerleader. “He definitely tried to make every game, every practice if he could,” said Christian. “It wasn’t just that he was there for me … he cheered for everybody.”

Jordan could handily balance multiple projects at a time. It would be nearly impossible to list every job title and affiliation he held. He was an instrumental part of the Springfield Dominican Anti-Racism Team. And he was a proud resident of the east side where he advocated for his community, a majority Black area. If he saw a problem that needed a solution, even down to the streets needing cleaned, Jordan would be on top of it, said his family.

Much of that energy was channeled into the Faith Coalition for the Common Good, an interfaith social justice advocacy organization based on the east side. After officials announced the Springfield Rail Improvements Project, Jordan helped craft a community benefits agreement meant to ensure the project would not further the harmful effects of segregation and blight.

Jordan also advocated for education about the 1908 Race Riot. He attended numerous meetings with the Federal Rail Administration after remains of Black-owned homes that white mobs had burned down were found during a project to consolidate rail traffic.

Shelly Heideman is executive director of the Faith Coalition for the Common Good. Jordan led its rail task force. “Leroy was the train pushing us through. He was the mover and shaker and he was always conscious of the race issue,” she said. “He had such a passion for justice.”

In 2015 – when promises made by local leaders who had signed the community benefits agreement were not kept – Jordan worked with state Sen. Andy Manar on legislation that created the Springfield High-Speed Rail Oversight Commission. That was the same year Jordan suffered a stroke, after which he worked hard on his recovery. Daughter Jennifer Jordan said one day she picked her father up from the hospital and took him directly to the Capitol for a hearing.

Daughter Loralean Jordan said his “relentlessness to fight for things that are right and just” guides her. When the pandemic began, he spearheaded Zoom family calls and had a standing virtual breakfast date with Jennifer’s son, Levi, his youngest grandchild. Jennifer said her father was sure of his own worth, and the worthiness of others.

“I think that’s how he showed up in the world, always assuming that he had the right to be there, the right to agitate for the things that he thought his community needed,” she said. “And I feel like we should probably all do more of that – assume that we’re on the right track and be aggressive about trying to make a change.”