Eddie Bernice Johnson, a former psychiatric nurse from Dallas who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for three decades, establishing herself as the most influential Democrat in North Texas while steering billions of federal dollars to the region and shaping policy debates on climate change and technology, died Dec. 31. She was 89.
Her death was announced in a Facebook post by her son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson Sr., who did not share additional details.
Ms. Johnson was elected to 15 terms in the House before retiring last January, leaving office as the dean of Texas’s congressional delegation and as the House’s oldest member. Praised by President Biden as a “mentor to generations of public servants,” she had a reputation for being forthright but even-keeled, and was revered by constituents who celebrated her advocacy on behalf of Black and low-income residents who had been overlooked by the region’s White male power brokers.
“She was the single most effective legislator Dallas has ever had,” said Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat turned Republican who cited Ms. Johnson as a mentor. (The two were unrelated.) In a statement, he added that “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.”
A granddaughter of sharecroppers, Ms. Johnson was raised in the Jim Crow-era South and began to turn toward politics in her early 20s, when she visited a downtown Dallas department store in 1956. In search of a hat for a friend’s wedding, she was told that she couldn’t try anything on: Because she was Black, the store clerks considered her skin dirty, almost contaminated, liable to soil garments that might be purchased by Whites.
“They had to measure my head,” Ms. Johnson told Dallas journalist Jim Schutze decades later, “and then go over and measure the hat.”
Ms. Johnson went on to help organize boycotts of Dallas stores that refused to employ or sell to Black people, and launched her political career with support from Neiman Marcus executive Stanley Marcus, a liberal voice in the city’s business world.
Breaking barriers in and out of politics, she became the first African American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’s Veterans Administration hospital; the first African American from Dallas to serve in the state Senate since Reconstruction; the first registered nurse elected to Congress; and the first woman and first African American to chair the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
In her first major political campaign, as an underdog running for the Texas House in 1972, Ms. Johnson won a runoff election amid calls to step aside and, in her recollection, “let a man do a man’s job.” Nearly two decades later, she bristled at a state political system that still felt like an old boys’ club.
“Being a woman and being Black is perhaps a double handicap,” she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1990, adding, “When you see who’s in the important huddles, who’s making the important decisions, it’s men.”
Ms. Johnson gradually made her way to the center of the huddle. While in the Texas Senate, she chaired a redistricting committee that drew the lines of a new majority-minority district zigzagging through Dallas and its suburbs. (Ms. Johnson likened the district’s tangled shape to a rattlesnake; the local alt-weekly, the Dallas Observer, called it “a squashed octopus.”) She soon became its first representative, winning more than 70 percent of the vote in the 1992 general election and becoming only the third Texas woman to be elected to the U.S. House.
Within a decade, she was commanding national attention as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She later steered federal funding toward STEM education programs and lambasted Republicans who sought to slash science funding or stymie action on climate change. In one of her last major initiatives, she helped craft the Chips and Science Act of 2022, which set aside tens of billions of dollars to bolster the nation’s semiconductor manufacturing industry.
While Ms. Johnson found legislative partners on both sides of the aisle, she was not without her critics. Her early years in Congress were plagued by staff turnover, some of it highly public: In 1996, her top aide issued a scathing resignation leader, accusing Ms. Johnson of misusing congressional resources by demanding that staffers perform personal errands, including picking up her dry cleaning and chauffeuring her around town. (Ms. Johnson denied that the work was mandatory or performed on congressional time.)
In 2010, she was widely criticized when the Morning News revealed that she had improperly given more than $20,000 in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children. The awards broke anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. Ms. Johnson agreed to repay the foundation, saying that she did not mean to violate the scholarship restrictions, but was accused of acting as though she were above the rules.
Voters remained loyal, however, and she cruised to reelection later that year, defeating a conservative minister with ties to the tea party movement. Supporters pointed to her success in delivering funding for North Texas roads, flood control projects and airport initiatives, and in 2019 her transportation work was commemorated when Dallas’s Union Station — a century-old hub for Amtrak, commuter rail and the regional DART transit agency — was renamed in her honor.
“This station was segregated,” Ms. Johnson said at the time, reflecting on the station’s earlier history. “But now, it fits me.”
The second of four children, Eddie Bernice Johnson was born in Waco, Tex., on Dec. 3, 1934. Many sources, including her official congressional biography, say that she was born a year later, but her son told the Morning News after her death that she was born in 1934. That year is also given in her voter registration files.
Her mother was a homemaker, and her father served in the Navy during World War II, ran a trucking business and worked for Waco’s VA hospital. Ms. Johnson described him as “probably the best friend I ever had.”
Unable to find a Texas nursing school that would accept a Black student, Ms. Johnson traveled out of state, receiving her certification in 1955 from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. The next year, she moved to Dallas, where she was hired at the VA hospital, sight unseen, by officials who had apparently believed she was a White man.
“They were shocked that I was Black,” she told Schutze. “They hadn’t had any Black professionals at all at that time in Dallas. Suddenly all the nurses’ residences were ‘full’ and the rest were ‘under construction.’” Her supervisors would go into hospital rooms before her, she said in a separate interview, to assure patients that Ms. Johnson was qualified.
Ms. Johnson stuck around, advancing her career by studying psychiatric nursing at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967. She received a master’s degree in public administration from Southern Methodist University in 1976.
By then she was serving in the Texas House, where she chaired the Labor Committee and attracted the attention of the Carter administration, leading to an appointment as a regional officer in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She returned to electoral politics in 1986, when she was elected to the Texas Senate.
Ms. Johnson’s marriage to Lacy Kirk Johnson, a schoolteacher who happened to share her last name, ended in divorce. Survivors include her son, a sister and three grandsons.
While Ms. Johnson was happy to see the number of women in Congress rise over the years — there are now eight female lawmakers from Texas, including her successor, Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D) — she continued to call for greater parity between men and women in office.
“You get talked down to by men, pushed around a little,” she said in 2004. “But I’m at the age now where I don’t let it happen. I just push back.”