Eddie Bernice Johnson, Trailbrazing Member of Congress Dies at 89

Eddie Bernice Johnson, Trailbrazing Member of Congress Dies at 89

Eddie Bernice Johnson passed away on Sunday, December 31, 2023. She was a trailblazing Black woman in the fields of health care and politics, having started her career as a nurse in Dallas, went on to become the city's first Black state senator after Reconstruction, and served 15 terms in the US House of Representatives. She was eighty-nine.

Her son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson Sr., acknowledged her death, although he did not disclose the location of her passing.

Raised in a segregated Waco, Texas, Ms. Johnson was a congressional representative from 1992 until January of this year. During her time in office, she supported legislation on water resources, which included environmental protection and flood management, as well as education, which gave priority to science, technology, engineering, and math.

She was the first Black woman to lead the House Science Committee and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2001 to 2003. She was the oldest member of the House of Representatives and the dean of the Texas Congressional delegation when she announced in November 2022 that she would not be seeking reelection.

She played a key role in mobilizing Black support for President Bill Clinton in 1998 during his impeachment by Republicans on grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice. She said that the administration had not shown that the United States was in immediate danger, hence she had voted against the resolution authorizing the war against Iraq in 2002.

She also assisted in thwarting Republican attempts to undermine federal initiatives aimed at reducing climate change.
Ms. Johnson was regarded as a practical politician who could reach across the aisle to get laws enacted rather than just grandstand, despite her unwavering determination and rigorous standards.

No one sent more federal infrastructure money home to our city, according to Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who also referred to her as the "single most effective legislator" in the city. Nobody made a greater effort to defend the interests and safety of our towns' residents. Furthermore, no one was more adept at navigating Washington on behalf of the Dallas community.

Lillie Mae (White) Johnson, a homemaker and the daughter of sharecroppers, and Edward Johnson, a tailor whose family was descended from Scotch-Irish indentured servants and owned acreage close to Houston, welcomed Eddie Bernice Johnson into the world on December 3, 1934, in Waco.

Her parents decided to name their child Eddie in honor of a young cousin who had passed away from pneumonia before they even realized they were expecting a girl.

She was motivated to become a doctor when her father's grandfather fell unwell and had to move in with the family. But my high school guidance counselor told me, 'Oh, you can't be a doctor,' when I told her. You're a youthful woman. She recalled, "You have to be a nurse," in a 2012 interview with The History Makers Digital Archive.

In order to attend a Catholic women's college in Notre Dame, Indiana, she registered at Saint Mary's when her father was unable to locate a nursing program in Texas that would allow Black students. (She went on to receive a Master of Public Administration from Southern Methodist University in 1976 and a Bachelor of Science from Texas Christian University in 1967.)

She was hired as the first Black nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dallas in 1956 after passing the registered nursing exam and earning her certificate.

She told The Dallas Morning News in 2020 that hospital administrators, who had recruited her without seeing her, were taken aback upon learning that she was Black and withdrew their promise to provide her a dorm room. In order to reassure patients that she was qualified, they also scheduled a white hospital employee to go before her when doing rounds.

She remarked, "That was really the most overt, blatant racism I had ever encountered in my life."

She nevertheless received a promotion and worked for 16 years as the hospital's head psychiatric nurse.

Since she was a young child, Ms. Johnson has been concerned about racial inequity. In 1941, she became involved in the civil rights movement after meeting a Black sailor who had been assigned to mess duty at Pearl Harbor.

She assisted in planning boycotts of companies that wouldn't recruit Black workers. She became the first Black woman to win electoral office from Dallas when she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, under the guidance of Edward and Stanley Marcus, executives of the Neiman Marcus department store.

In 1977, she resigned from the legislature to take a position as the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's regional director under President Jimmy Carter. She was elected to the State Senate in 1986 and worked on the redistricting process to help her gain a congressional seat from the newly formed 30th District in 1992.

It was reported that she was the first elected registered nurse to Congress.

2010 saw Ms. Johnson come under fire for breaking the guidelines of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation by giving scholarships to two of her staff member's children and four of her relatives. She committed to repaying scholarship funds totaling thousands of dollars.

She wed the teacher Lacey Kirk Johnson in 1956; the two divorced in 1970. Her surviving children are her son and her three grandsons.

During the 1989 redistricting debate, several civic leaders in Dallas argued that racism was only one of several factors contributing to the glaring disparity in political representation between Black, Hispanic, and White voters. Ms. Johnson, who had personally encountered racism, agreed.

She told The New York Times, "I am afraid of young people who think that every bad thing that happens to them is the result of a racist power structure."

When asked how she would like to be remembered during her interview with The History Makers, she said, "As somebody who remembered how she got there and what she went for." I made a concerted effort to fulfill my pledge to the people I would represent.

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