Waco leaders inspired by late Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Waco leaders inspired by late Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Politics



Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas political pioneer hailing from Waco, died Sunday at 89. Although the majority of her career was spent representing areas of North Texas in the state House of Representatives, state Senate and U.S. House, Waco officials recount her lasting local influence and involvement.

Johnson was born Dec. 3, 1934, in Waco. She attended A.J. Moore High School and Toliver Chapel Baptist Church in East Waco until she graduated and moved on to receive a nursing certificate from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

She returned to Texas to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Dallas while achieving a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Texas Christian University. In 1967, she was promoted to be the first African American chief psychiatric nurse at the hospital, despite experiencing overt racism at the site when hospital officials found out she was Black after hiring her.

She was encouraged to run for Texas House District 33 and won the seat in 1972 as the first Black woman in Dallas elected to a public office.

McLennan County Commissioner Patricia Miller said she attended Toliver Chapel as a young girl and was inspired in her teens by Johnson when she announced to the congregation she would run for state government. The moment shaped Miller’s interest in studying political science in college.

“Thinking as a young woman, there was this African American professional explaining to us why it was possible,” Miller said.

“I think when you see people that you admire … when you can also see some of the steps they made you’ve also made, then it makes their achievements appear not so unattainable,” she said, thinking of her younger self being motivated to follow in Johnson’s footsteps.

Waco civic leader Lyndon Olson said he struck up a lasting friendship with Johnson at a legislative gathering at Green Pastures Restaurant in Austin in 1973, when they were both freshmen state representatives.

“She came over and said, ‘You’re from Waco, too?’”

Working on committees with Johnson in the Texas Legislature, Olson was impressed with her knowledge of policy issues, especially health care.

They kept in touch after Olson departed the Legislature to serve on the Texas Insurance Commission and later became U.S. ambassador to Sweden, while Johnson went on to the Texas Senate.

In the early 1990s she chaired the subcommittee of congressional redistricting and created a new 30th U.S. Congressional District composed of mostly minority voters. She decided she would run for the new seat and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to January 2023.

Johnson was the oldest member of the House when she left office at 87 years old. She was the first Black woman to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Coming up as a Democrat in Texas, Johnson often stood out. Officials have recognized her as firm and influential, but possessing the ability to work with Republicans.

She was an advocate for women and African Americans in politics and science-related fields, and she chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Science Committee after serving on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee following her election.

Although much of her career was spent representing the Dallas area, local officials say she never forgot where she came from.

Olson said Johnson represented her Dallas district first, but she always kept an eye on Waco’s needs as well. She worked with Waco congressmen Chet Edwards and Bill Flores on legislation, including the yearslong and still ongoing effort to get a Medal of Honor for Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller.

“If something was going on here she would reach out wanting to know, ‘Can I help?’” Olson said.

“She was wonderfully helpful to Waco,” he said. “She cared about those interests even though we had our own congressmen.”

Waco NAACP political action Chair Linda Lewis said her and Johnson’s fathers worked together at the Waco VA and family ties kept them in contact for several years. Lewis got involved in politics in Austin around the same time as Johnson and recalled an incident in 1973 involving racial discrimination by then-Texas Comptroller Robert Calvert.

The issue of minority workers in the comptroller’s office and Calvert’s response to Johnson’s questioning became a battle cry for women and Black Democrats, with Bob Bullock mounting a successful election campaign to oust Calvert shortly into Johnson’s Texas House stint, Lewis said.

Lewis said Johnson was an important part of history then and as a senator and congresswoman. Lewis, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. alongside Johnson and Commissioner Miller, admired Johnson’s career and her mentorship of young women.

“She opened doors for all women, but especially Black women,” she said. “During my political career we never lost touch. She mentored me, warned me, admonished and scolded me. … She was one of the Black girls I wanted to be like when I grew up.”

Though they would never become close friends, Miller admired Johnson from afar and said she was always strong and focused while maintaining grace, all qualities she tries to emulate.

“She was so poised always, so in control and was so elegant,” Miller said. “But it didn’t stop her from being forceful and being adamant. In a lot of ways I hope that is my persona.”

Miller commended Johnson for overcoming two hurdles she can relate to: being Black and being a woman in politics during a difficult time for both.

Waco City Council Member Andrea Barefield, who also attends Toliver Chapel, said on trips with the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce or National League of Cities she would always make a point to stop and see Johnson, who was always fighting for Waco. She was integral in having an aircraft carrier named after Waco-born Navy hero Doris Miller and has been a tireless advocate for his Medal of Honor.

Barefield said Johnson, chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, was one of the first to hear of her budding ideas for the Bledsoe-Miller STEM and Cultural Arts Center. Even in the project’s infancy she was willing to offer a helping hand, Barefield said.

“She loved her Dallas, but she never forgot where she came from,” Barefield said.

Services for Johnson will start next week with a viewing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 8 in the Hall of State at Dallas’ Fair Park, followed by a prayer service from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at Concord Church in Dallas and a funeral service at 10 a.m. Jan. 9 in the church. A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 10 in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

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