Waco’s Eddie Bernice Johnson, who broke barriers in long House career, dies


DALLAS — Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a trailblazing Black woman who spent decades as North Texas’ most powerful Democrat, allowing her to leave a generational impact on the region’s development, died Sunday. She was 89.

Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson posted about her death on social media, and a source close to the family confirmed it with the Dallas Morning News.

Johnson’s son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson Sr., called his mother a champion for the people of Texas.

“She gave her life to this community,” he said. “She gave Dallas all she had to give.”

U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, who Johnson endorsed as her successor after she announced her retirement, called Johnson a “quiet storm,” who “prided herself in getting things done to better the lives of the people that she served.”

“The Chairwoman didn’t take passing the torch on lightly, and likewise, I’ve not taken it lightly that she entrusted me to honor her work and legacy,” Crockett said in a statement. “Every day that passes is a day that I dedicate to continuing her work and attempting to fill her shoes. The work has never been easy, but it has and always will be noble. As I conclude this statement, fighting back tears, I say rest easy to the Gentle Lady from Texas and just know that I will always fight to preserve the foundation that you laid over your 50 years of service to Texas and the United States.”

News of Johnson’s death sparked an outpouring of tribute from friends and public servants she mentored.

“She was a leader who took care of Dallas and Texas above everything else,” said former U.S. trade representative and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. “She’s been a friend and mentor. Dallas and the country has lost a great leader.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, visits with Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat who served with her in Congress, at a ceremony unveiling her portrait as a retiring chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Nov. 17, 2022.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, replaced Johnson in the Texas Senate. He called her a mentor.

“We’re all forever indebted to her and her work and her legacy will live on forever,” West said. “Throughout the 30 years that she served, we confided in one another and strategized together on issues. That counsel will be missed, but the lessons taught will remain and be passed on for future generations.”

Former state Rep. Helen Giddings, a DeSoto Democrat, who was one of the first Black women elected to the Texas Legislature said, “there is no question that I and other women and people of color serving today stand on her shoulders.

“She and I shared a passion for working to empower women.” Giddings said. “Her guidance made a difference in this and other areas in my legislative career. Our state and our country and for that matter the world are better because of Eddie Bernice Johnson.”

Her colleagues in Washington remembered her as a trailblazer and inimitable public servant.

U.S. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Johnson personally mentored him “with love wisdom and her powerful intellect.” He praised Johnson’s investment in manufacturing jobs and providing communities of color and under-resourced areas with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

“I stand with great humility on her broad shoulders,” Jeffries said.

“Unrivaled in her ability to deliver for Dallas and for Texas, she always put Texans first and fought every day for her constituents,” said Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat, who is leaving his House seat to run for the Senate. “Everywhere you look, Texans can see the mark she made on our state. … Texas lost a giant.”

Born in Waco in the segregated South, Johnson shattered barriers at nearly every stage of her political and professional career, paving the way for more women and African Americans to obtain leadership roles in politics, nursing and other fields in Texas and beyond.

She was the first African American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’ VA hospital; the first African American from Dallas to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction; the first registered nurse elected to Congress; and the first Black woman to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Johnson’s district, anchored in southern Dallas County, ebbed and flowed many times during her 30-year tenure as the Legislature and federal courts adjusted the lines in response to census counts and lawsuits. Designed to favor non-white voters, it initially snaked into Collin County and spilled into Tarrant County, cobbling minority neighborhoods to yield a population that was half Black and 17% Hispanic.

She represented downtown Dallas for much of her tenure but routinely used her clout to tend to regional needs, aiding with Dallas Love Field expansions and major highway projects.


Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, poses with family and friends in front of her official portrait, unveiled at a ceremony Nov. 17, 2022 in the hearing room of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which she chairs. She is retiring from Congress after 30 years.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Johnson a “visionary pioneer” when her portrait was unveiled in November 2022 to hang alongside those of other previous science committee chairs.

At 87, Johnson was the oldest member of the House when she left office in January 2023.

At the portrait ceremony, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — chair of the Senate commerce and science panel — called Johnson a “champion” and a “person we need to put on a pedestal.”

Johnson used her gavel to push back on Republican attempts to block action on climate change and advance support for scientific research and STEM education. She shepherded major funding for science and technology, including NASA, and played a key role in securing tens of billions of dollars to revive the U.S. semiconductor chip industry.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., spoke of the near “miraculous” achievements Johnson oversaw despite leading the science panel in an era of bitter partisanship — none of which, he said, would have been feasible “without EBJ’s style, skill, subtlety, understanding, patience and persistence.”

When she announced her retirement in 2021, Johnson said: “I’ve worked hard. It’s not just a title — it’s a job. It’s been some rugged times, but I have not acknowledged it. I was determined that I wouldn’t just be a title. I wanted to deliver. I thought about the district and all the needs that it had.”

A lasting testament to that history is Dallas’ Union Station, a once racially segregated facility that in 2019 was renamed after Johnson.

“You’ve heard that this station was segregated, but now, it fits me,” she said at the time, tearing up at the ceremony unveiling the new name. “It’s open to all, regardless of religion, regardless of the origin of birth, regardless of party, regardless of gender. That’s what I love.”

The intermodal station on the southwestern edge of downtown connects passengers to DART light rail, TRE commuter trains, local buses and Amtrak. Then-Mayor Mike Rawlings lauded her ability to make connections.

“She has worked across the aisle for the betterment of her constituents on aviation, flood control, homelessness, homeland security, law enforcement, science and, of course, transportation,” Rawlings said. “I couldn’t think of a more fitting person to rename our Union Station after.”

The National Science Foundation named a program aimed at improving diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Johnson. The program, launched in 2016, connects students and educators with STEM professionals and issues grants.

Influential panels

Johnson’s resume wasn’t merely defined by firsts.

Her status as a senior Democrat, one who served on influential panels like the House transportation committee, stood out in a state dominated by Republicans, and it provided her significant power, particularly during years in which her party controlled the House.

Republicans knew they needed to work with Johnson, who nurtured bipartisan alliances even as she remained a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who often chided the GOP.

She leveraged those partnerships and her position to secure a seemingly endless list of projects for North Texas, covering everything from massive roadworks to flood control improvements along the Trinity River.

“She will go down in history as being the single most effective legislator in the history of the state of Texas for bringing home infrastructure and resources to North Texas. She’s just been uber effective,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said at her portrait ceremony.

Eddie Bernice Johnson Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton walks with congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson after he arrived at Love Field on June 2, 1998, for a $25,000 per couple fundraiser at the home of Dallas developer and art collector Ray Nasher.

Johnson’s career wasn’t without criticism or controversy.

Challengers in the second half of her congressional career accused her of hanging onto her seat too long, while also arguing that her district continued to suffer from issues like poverty and underinvestment. Her election to the U.S. House in 1992 was marred by accusations that she, as the leader of a Texas Senate redistricting panel, drew a seat for herself. Texas Monthly twice included her on its list of worst state legislators in Austin.

The congresswoman’s biggest career flap came in 2010, when the Morning News revealed she had improperly awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children. She ultimately paid back the money, saying she had “unknowingly” violated the rules.

But those missteps never dimmed her popularity in southern Dallas, where she never really endured a substantive election challenge. Nor did they affect her standing in Washington, where she enjoyed respect across generations of lawmakers and praise from leaders in both parties.

“A pioneering African American woman who has been instrumental in making one of America’s most diverse cities into a growing hub for research and innovation that inspires the world,” Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, then the House majority leader, said of Johnson in 2019.

A path to leadership roles

Johnson was born Dec. 3, 1934, the second of Edward and Lillie Mae Johnson’s four children. Raised in Waco and graduating from Waco’s A.J. Moore High School, she moved to Dallas in her 20s. Johnson’s son said that though his mother’s birth date has been listed as Dec. 3, 1935 — including in her official congressional biography — she was actually born the year prior. Her birth year is listed as 1934 on both her driver’s license and Texas voter registration, according to public records.

She was close to her mother. But she described her father as “probably the best friend I ever had,” calling him “my real hero.” When her dad ran a trucking business, she would sneak out of bed at night to sit on the front steps and wait for him to come home.

“I remember having him grab me and hug me, and I remember my face feeling his whiskers because he hadn’t shaved that day driving in,” she said in 1987 in a wide-ranging interview with the Dallas Morning News.

According to remarks read into the Congressional Record in 2007, Johnson and her family attended Toliver Chapel Baptist Church in Waco.

Johnson’s parents exposed her and her siblings to arts and culture at an early age, taking advantage of the perks of living in a college town. Baylor University had a “Black day or night” for its theater productions and her family was almost always there, she recalled.

“We’d go to see all the plays, which were not that common at that time in the Black community,” she said.

She maintained a lifelong love of theater and music, saying in 2001 that if she wasn’t a lawmaker, she would be a “volunteer in the arts.” Her parents, who dabbled in community politics, weren’t surprised she ended up running for office.

“She always wanted to be boss of all the children,” her mother told the Morning News in 1987.

Johnson left Texas in the early 1950s to get a nursing certificate at St. Mary’s College in Indiana. Most of the students were white, making it “the first time in my life that I was really into sort of an all-white world,” she said. Her classmates, none from Texas, called her “Tex.”

There were signs of a political awakening there, too.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once came to town, also home to the University of Notre Dame, Johnson recalled, and the future congresswoman got to shake his hand. She was “so impressed” she became a Republican, until President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, came along.

Johnson would later earn a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University and then a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University.

Overt racism

She first returned to Texas for work, getting hired sight unseen at Dallas’ VA hospital — an experience she would never forget.

Johnson had been told she could live in a dorm on campus. But when officials saw she was Black, “they were just shocked,” she said. The nurses’ quarters were no longer open to her. Officials would go into patients’ rooms ahead of her to “say that I was qualified,” she said.

“That was really the most blatant, overt racism that I ever experienced in my life,” she recalled.

Johnson nearly quit. But the chief nurse urged her to stay, telling her, “You need to do this for your people,” Johnson recounted. She did stay, eventually working her way up to chief psychiatric nurse.

“It was very challenging,” she said in 2020. “But any job where you’re an African American woman entering for the first time would be a challenge. They had not hired one before I got there. Yes, it was a challenge, but it was a successful venture.”

Those sort of inequities spurred her to political activism. Friends and community leaders encouraged her to run for the Texas House, finally convincing her in 1972.

In a stark sign of the times, the Morning News’ un-bylined story about her candidacy was titled “Woman Seeks Seat in House.” It made a point to describe Johnson, whose marriage had recently ended, as a late 30s divorcee with a 14-year-old son.

The political novice won, fueled by a scrappy family effort that saw her teenager, Kirk, take cooking classes so mom could spend more time campaigning.

Rising Democratic star

Johnson faced bigoted attacks from those who said a spot in the state House was a “man’s job, a lawyer’s job and a job for a family person,” the Morning News noted during her 1972 run. Her victory made her the first Black woman in Dallas elected to public office, and made her a rising Democratic star.

She became the first woman in the Texas House to chair a major committee — the Labor Committee in the late 70s. She earned a plum role in the state Democratic Party. She captured the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who named her to a leadership post within the U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Department.

Carter’s loss in 1980 sent Johnson into the political wilderness for a time. She took a job with a national nursing advocacy group. Then a state Senate seat came open in southern Dallas in 1986. She ran and won.

With the higher profile came added scrutiny.

Texas Monthly in 1989 skewered Johnson’s temper, saying “her primary legislative tool is anger” and that “when things don’t go her way, look out.” The magazine, citing her work on improving minority representation, also noted that she could be “effective and even eloquent.”


Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, poses with great-granddaughter Lily Johnson, 6, on Nov. 17, 2022, with her newly unveiled portrait as chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The portrait will hang with those of other retired chairmen — all men — as she leaves Congress after 30 years.

When Johnson turned her sights to Congress in 1992, she revealed her intent in a startlingly unusual way: while leading a meeting of the Senate redistricting subcommittee that was drawing boundaries for the newly created seat.

Rivals jabbed at her over accusations that she crafted a district to her liking. Johnson batted away the criticism and became the second Black woman elected to Congress from Texas, after former Houston Rep. Barbara Jordan.

Johnson soon became a force in Washington, focusing on issues ranging from voting rights to education, health care to transportation.

Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman

In 2001, she was elected chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, vaulting her to the national stage. Ebony magazine named her one of the 10 Most Powerful African American Women.

Her relationship with President George W. Bush, a fellow Texan, spotlighted her approach in D.C.

“We don’t agree on a lot, but we’re friendly about it,” she told the Morning News in 2001, saying in another interview that year that “if he walked in here right now, I’d probably greet him with a hug, as he would me.”

Johnson’s growing seniority positioned her to secure significant funding and projects for North Texas. For many years, she formed half of a formidable duo with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Dallas Republican likewise legendary for her ability to deliver for the region.

It’s difficult to name an aspect of North Texas’ development in the last three decades, particularly infrastructure, that didn’t have Johnson’s imprint.

“Johnson was supportive of DART way before it became popular,” Gary Thomas, the former president and chief executive of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, said in 2011, hailing Johnson as a “visionary.”

Republicans in Texas often looked to Johnson for help securing federal aid, especially during periods of Democratic rule.

Johnson, for years the only Democrat in Congress from North Texas, sometimes shouldered that burden alone. In 2009, for instance, no other lawmaker from the Dallas area voted for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

“Though I stood alone in this area in voting for it — and I was called a spendthrift — I’ll take it,” she said in 2013 at the ribbon-cutting for the DFW Connector, a $1 billion expansion of interchanges on the north side of the airport. The project received the largest stimulus award of any transportation project in the country.

Johnson’s status as the first registered nurse elected to Congress gave her gravitas on issues such as health care and scientific research, as well, helping her ascend to a coveted chairwoman spot atop the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Yet, when her influence didn’t sway her colleagues, she could be a bulldog.

WATCH NOW: Why not the Medal of Honor for Doris Miller, Waco’s hero of Pearl Harbor?

She spent years unsuccessfully trying to get a posthumous Medal of Honor for World War II icon Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Black mess attendant from Waco who heroically manned a machine gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I have lobbied the Department of the Navy about as much as I know how to lobby them,” Johnson said at one point, though she would eventually at least be able to celebrate the Navy’s decision to name an aircraft carrier after her hometown hero.

As Johnson’s number of terms in Congress went into double digits, questions began to arise about how long she would stay in office.

Adversaries and allies

Critics noted that for all she’d done for North Texas, her southern Dallas County district hadn’t fully shared in the region’s prosperity. Her sometimes-brusque style irritated adversaries and alienated would-be allies. She maintained deep-seated rivalries with some other heavyweight North Texas Democrats, such as Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

The friction points came to a head in 2010, when the Morning News revealed that Johnson had broken anti-nepotism rules by awarding scholarships from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to four relatives, including two grandchildren, and to a top aide’s two children.

Johnson offered shifting explanations for the obvious conflict of interest, which was roundly criticized by experts on philanthropy and ethics, and by the Congressional Black Caucus’ leaders. She ultimately said she had “made a mistake without knowing I made a mistake.”

The scandal led to her toughest primary in 2012, though she ended up crushing former state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway and Dallas attorney Taj Clayton in the primary with more than 70% of the vote.

It was Johnson’s last serious challenge, as she repeatedly postponed retirement.

“I fully intended to retire after my current term, but with much pressure and encouragement, I have agreed to one more term,” Johnson told district residents in 2019 in campaign robocalls. “I plan to continue to work hard to serve District 30.”

After announcing her retirement in November 2021, Johnson endorsed Crockett — 45 years her junior — as her successor. In her statement Sunday following the news of Johnson’s death, Crockett said she was “bewildered” when Johnson called and asked her to run for her seat.

“But that is the thing about (Johnson): she never slept,” Crockett said. “She was always working. She kept her finger on the pulse of what was going on in the Texas House, and while I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into, I trusted her, her judgment and her mentorship.

With Johnson’s backing, Crockett became only the second representative from District 30, created after the 1990 census.

“I really can’t imagine the challenges she went through,” Crockett said after winning the nomination in a runoff. “She created the pathway for me.”

(Washington Bureau chief Todd J. Gillman and staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.)

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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