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Historian Dan Jordan left a nationally...

Historian Dan Jordan left a nationally renowned legacy in leading Jefferson’s Monticello

By: Sid Salter - April 3, 2024

Sid Salter

  • Columnist Sid Salter remembers the life of one of America’s most distinguished and respected historians who was a native Mississippian.

Daniel Porter Jordan Jr.’s passing was noted in many of the nation’s leading newspapers, including The Washington Post. Jordan, one of America’s most distinguished and respected historians, died March 21 of a heart attack was 85.

Jordan’s life was a series of noteworthy achievements, beginning in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and continuing throughout his productive life. He was the son of Philadelphia dentist Dr. Daniel Porter Jordan Sr. and Mildred Dobbs Jordan, a homemaker.

After a stellar academic and athletic career first at Philadelphia High School and later at Ole Miss, the then 22-year-old U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Jordan was awarded the 1960 Neshoba County Youth Achievement Award at the racetrack grandstand at the Neshoba County Fair – an institution in which the Jordan family was active all of his life.

At that juncture in his life, Jordan had already earned an undergraduate degree in History and English at Ole Miss, earned letters in varsity basketball and baseball, and served as president of the student body. Jordan won additional individual honors in sports, ROTC and honorary and social fraternities.

Jordan would go on to earn a master’s degree in history from Ole Miss in 1962 and later a Ph.D. in history in 1970 from the University of Virginia. He fulfilled his military obligations as an Army infantryman in South Korea and Western Europe.

For more than a decade after earning his doctorate, Jordan taught history at Virginia Commonwealth University. There, he authored or edited several scholarly books including “Political Leadership in Jefferson’s Virginia” in 1983.

In 1985, Jordan was invited to join the staff at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home Monticello as director of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. He would serve and grow Monticello from 1985 until his retirement as president and CEO in 2008.

The Washington Post obituary on Jordan included this high praise, calling him a “historian who guided Monticello into the 21st century, safeguarding…Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation while broadening its educational programs to encompass discussions of slavery and race” and quoted Monticello’s current leader Jane Kamensky as calling Jordan “the most consequential president on the Mountaintop since Jefferson himself.”

During Jordan’s higher education years, his hometown of Philadelphia was the scene of a notorious civil rights atrocity in 1964 in which three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Yet Jordan steadfastly embraced his Mississippi roots, returning to the Neshoba County Fair and the family cabin on Founder’s Square.

The Post’s Harrison Smith reported the story of Jordan’s pride in his Mississippi roots: “With the help of the ticket office, he set up ‘Magnolia Alert’ so that he could offer an effusive hello to anyone who visited with a Mississippi license plate.”

Jordan’s sojourns to Mississippi for the Neshoba County Fair encompassed his family’s long association with an event called the “A.J. Yates Jr. Memorial Late Night Sing” that veteran fairgoers enjoy. The event gives fairgoers a chance to gather and sing old campground songs and hymns with the accompaniment of a pianist.

Dan Jordan was a grand nephew of the late A.J. Yates, who founded the Sing officially in 1963. His late mother, Mrs. Mildred Dobbs Jordan, was one of the lead pianists, and his brother Dr. Joe Jordan, is one of the current chairpersons.

From that background, Dan Jordan was confronted with the decision as the leader of Monticello of the controversy over 1998 DNA testing that strongly suggested that slave Sally Hemmings had borne Jefferson several children while enslaved.

Jordan said at a press conference: “Slavery and race are uncomfortable subjects for many Americans, but they are in the mainstream of our interpretations at Monticello today precisely because they are part of the Monticello story.”

Philadelphia and Neshoba County has long lived with the brutal infamy of the Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney murders in 1964 in our midst – and should. But it is also important to note that the county was likewise the cradle of people of great intelligence, fairness and decency on questions of race, dignity and fairness – people like historian Dan Jordan.

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.