Eddie Bernice Johnson, who blazed a trail as a Black woman in health care and government, first as a nurse in Dallas, then as the first Black state senator from the city since Reconstruction and then in 15 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, died on Sunday. She was 88.
Her death was confirmed by her son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson Sr., who did not specify where she died.
Ms. Johnson, who was raised in segregated Waco, Texas, served in Congress from 1992 through last January, championing legislation on water resources, which encompassed flood control and environmental protection, and on education, which prioritized science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
She was the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2001-2003 and the first Black woman to head the House Science Committee. When she decided not to run again in November 2022, she was the dean of the Texas Congressional delegation and the oldest member of the House of Representatives.
In 1998, she helped rally Black support for President Bill Clinton when Republicans impeached him for perjury and obstruction of justice. In 2002, she voted against the resolution authorizing the war against Iraq, arguing that the administration had failed to provide evidence of an imminent threat to the United States.
She also helped fend off Republican attempts to weaken government efforts to mitigate climate change.
As indefatigable and exacting as she could be, Ms. Johnson was also considered a pragmatic legislator who could reach across the aisle to get bills passed rather than just grandstand.
Mayor Eric Johnson of Dallas called her the city’s “single most effective legislator,” adding: “Nobody brought more federal infrastructure money home to our city. Nobody fought harder for our communities and our residents’ interests and safety. And nobody knew how to navigate Washington better for the people of Dallas.”
Eddie Bernice Johnson was born on Dec. 3, 1935, in Waco to Lillie Mae (White) Johnson, a homemaker and the daughter of sharecroppers, and Edward Johnson, a tailor whose family, descendants of Scotch-Irish indentured servants, owned farmland near Houston.
Before her parents knew they were having a daughter, they agreed to name their baby Eddie after a young cousin who had recently died of pneumonia.
She was inspired to become a doctor after her paternal grandfather became ill and joined the household. “But when I told my high school counselor, she said, ‘Oh, you can’t be a doctor. You’re a young lady. You have to be a nurse,’” she recalled in an interview with The History Makers Digital Archive in 2012.
After her father failed to find a nursing school in Texas that accepted Black students, she enrolled at Saint Mary’s, a Catholic women’s college in Notre Dame, Ind. (She later also earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Christian University in 1967 and a Master’s of Public Administration from Southern Methodist University in 1976.)
In 1956, after passing the registered nursing exam and receiving her certificate, she was enlisted as the first Black nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dallas.
But hospital officials who had hired her sight unseen were shocked to discover that she was Black and rescinded their offer to provide a dormitory room, she told The Dallas Morning News in 2020. They also had a white hospital employee precede her on rounds as a way to assure patients that she was qualified.
“That was really the most blatant, overt racism that I ever experienced in my life,” she said.
Nonetheless, she was promoted to become the hospital’s chief psychiatric nurse and served in that role for 16 years.
She had been concerned about racial inequality since she was a child, when she met a Black sailor who had been relegated to mess duties at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and became active in the civil rights movement.
She helped organize boycotts of retailers that refused to hire Black employees. In 1972, having been mentored by Edward and Stanley Marcus, executives of the Neiman Marcus department store, she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives — the first Black woman to win electoral office from Dallas.
She left the legislature in 1977 to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1986, she was elected to the State Senate, where she helped draw redistricting maps that enabled her to win a seat in Congress from the newly constituted 30th District in 1992.
She was said to have been the first registered nurse elected to Congress.
In 2010, she faced criticism over scholarships awarded by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to four relatives and to two children of a member of her staff, in violation of the group’s rules. She agreed to repay thousands of dollars in scholarship funds.
In 1956, she married Lacey Kirk Johnson, a teacher; they separated in 1970. In addition to their son, her survivors include three grandsons.
In a redistricting dispute in 1989, some Dallas civic leaders maintained that racism was just one of several factors behind the obvious imbalance in political representation among Black, Hispanic and white constituents. Ms. Johnson, who had firsthand experience with racism, did not disagree.
“I am frightened to see young people who believe that a racist power structure is responsible for every negative thing that happens to them,” she told The New York Times.
Asked in The History Makers interview how she would like to be recalled, she replied: “As somebody who remembered how she got there and what she went for. I tried to work hard to deliver what I could to the people that I promised to represent.”