Eddie Bernice Johnson

Portrait of Eddie Bernice Johnson Headstone Photograph

Full Name: Eddie Bernice Johnson
Location: Section:Patriots' Hill, Section 1 (A)
Row:Y  Number:11
Reason for Eligibility: United States Congresswoman, Member, Texas House, Texas Senate 
Birth Date: December 3, 1934 
Died: December 31, 2023 
Buried: January 10, 2024 

JOHNSON, EDDIE BERNICE (1934 ~ 2023). The following is a family-placed obituary for Eddie Bernice Johnson, former member of the United States House of Representatives, former member of the Texas Senate and former member of the Texas House of Representatives. The obituary was provided by former Johnson staff members.

The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson, long time Congresswoman and public servant, passed peacefully at her home with her son, Kirk, by her side on December 31, 2023 at the age of 89. As news of her transition spread, tributes poured in trying to do honor to a life well lived. Icon. Trailblazer. Groundbreaking leader. Champion. Statesman. Mentor. Friend. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. Giant. Impressive words yet still incapable of fully capturing her impact and influence. She was undeniably all of these and yet so much more. Congresswoman Johnson never saw a problem she didn’t try to fix; an inequity she didn’t try to correct; or a person in need who she didn’t want to help.

A proud Waco native, she was born on December 3, 1934, the second of Edward and Lillie Mae Johnson’s four children. They named her Eddie after an uncle, Bernice after an aunt. Knowing that their children would face the harsh inequities of segregation, they surrounded them with love, faith and family so that they might each find the purpose for their lives. 

As a child, Eddie Bernice wanted to be a doctor. But a school counselor told her that she was “too feminine” to be a doctor. She should become a nurse. It was her first collision with gender discrimination, but she decided to pursue nursing because it would still be a pathway for her to fulfill her self-defined purpose: service.    

She was only seventeen when she graduated with honors from A. J. Moore High School, Waco’s black high school. The summer of 1952, she boarded a train for South Bend, Indiana to study nursing at St. Mary’s College because Baylor did not allow this study for African Americans. This ride would take her to many firsts: the first time that she traveled by herself; the first time that she took a cab on her own;  the first time that she shared a room and living quarters with white women; the first time that she was in classes with white women; the first time that she would spend holidays away from home because travel was so expensive; the first time that she would need to confront a teacher who made her feel invisible because she was black; the first time that she wondered how white acquaintances would react to the story of the lynching of her grandfather.

These and so many other firsts strengthened her determination. Failure simply was not an option. She cultivated what would become her lifetime formula for success. She would live up to the personally demanding standards that she set for herself, even if it meant sacrifices, such as foregoing parties for studying. She would always be intentional in how she presented herself, both in terms of appearance and demeanor, so that she would command respect. She would carry herself with dignity and purpose to rebuff any racist or sexist attitudes that would impede her march to success. She would be steadfast and tenacious so that she would be defined by her hard work, commitment, and character.    

With that focus, within 3 years Eddie Bernice had qualified to start her nursing career. She had traveled to various northern cities to complete her hospital training rounds. She had passed all four sections of the national nursing exam on her first try, something accomplished by only about a third of the exam takers. She was 20 years old, not old enough to vote, but she had achieved her goal of becoming a certified nurse. Some years later, she would attend Texas Christian University to complete her Bachelor of Science degree and Southern Methodist University to obtain her master’s degree. 

Returning to Texas in 1955, she sought a position with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Dallas. She received an acceptance letter telling her that she had the job and a room in the nurses’ dormitory. When she showed up at the hospital, she was left sitting in the secretary’s waiting area. After hours, she was summoned and awkwardly told that the administrators had assumed that “Eddie” would be a man and as a woman she couldn’t live in the nurses’ dormitory. Because most nurses were women, it was obvious that it wasn’t her gender but her race that was the problem. Undaunted, Eddie Bernice rented rooms with a black family in the near north section of Dallas. Through that family she was introduced to prominent local and national African American activists, Juanita Craft, A. Maceo Smith, L.A. Bedford, Jr., Whitney Young, Thurgood Marshall, Vernon Jordan, Maynard Jackson and others. What had been a hateful act of overt racism led her to a more comfortable and consequential living situation.  

On her first working day at the VA, Eddie Bernice was informed that she was the first and only African American nurse at the hospital. The chief nurse candidly told her that there would be many people, both staff and patients, who would think that she didn’t belong there and that she couldn’t do the work. Once again, she rose to the challenge of proving herself to those who would judge her. She dealt with the ever-changing shift assignments that would cause her to miss bus schedules and force her to walk miles, late at night, through areas of undeveloped lots. She endured the isolation of eating lunch alone in the cafeteria. And she withstood the scrutiny, the ever-present anticipation of her making a mistake.

Despite these pressures, her determination, hard work, and excellent patient care earned her a promotion to head psychiatric nurse, making her one of the youngest people to attain that position. She became responsible for creating nursing schedules, the very schedules that had been used to torment her. She developed a day treatment service program for psychiatric patients. She reported inequities in pay and other grievances about treatment of African American and Hispanic employees which led to a formal VA investigation. That response gave birth to a conviction that if her voice was loud and clear enough, it would be heard, a belief that would be central to her decades of political service.

While working as a nurse, Eddie Bernice became involved in community activities and political events. She helped organize a boycott of local Dallas stores because they discriminated against black women in their policies of trying on clothes. She joined women’s organizations and worked on political campaigns. 

It was at an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity party that she met her future husband, Lacy Johnson. A graduate of Bishop College, he was a math teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, the high school for black students. When she and Lacy decided to marry, Eddie Bernice who had converted to Catholicism while at St. Mary’s, eagerly approached the monsignor to schedule her wedding at Holy Cross Catholic Church, where she attended mass almost daily. But he denied her request, saying that African Americans could not be married in that church and that she had to go to the black Catholic church in south Dallas. Her faith in Catholicism was irrevocably shattered. Surrounded by close family, she and Lacy were married in his parents’ home, with his father, a Baptist minister, officiating.

But once again, cruel rejection had a positive consequence. The money that was saved by having a smaller wedding was used to buy a house. It was to this home that they proudly brought their son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson.

A couple of years later, they moved to the Dallas Cedar Crest neighborhood, adjacent to the city golf course. This turned out to be another consequential event as African American activists, such as Dr. Emmett Conrad, Attorney C. B. Bunkley, newspaper publisher Dickie Foster, and several school principals and administrators became their neighbors. She got involved in Dr. Conrad’s campaign for election to the Dallas school board. With Kirk at her side, she knocked on doors, passed out campaign literature and urged people to vote for Dr. Conrad. Walking door to door to connect with voters would become one of the key strategies for her future political campaigns. 

She joined the Progressive Voter’s League and the National Council of Negro Women. She worked with Lloyd Bentsen’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, again walking door to door, distributing campaign materials, placing yard signs and recording a radio endorsement. Her activism and visibility prompted Reverend Zan Holmes to suggest that she succeed him in the Texas House of Representatives. Despite encouragement from both black and white supporters, Eddie Bernice remained ambivalent about becoming an elected official. Not certain that this was to be her path, she waited until the last minute to submit her application to run. But she was encouraged by Kirk who supportively announced that he would take cooking lessons so that he could prepare their meals. 

With that 1972 election victory she became the first black woman elected to the state legislature from north Texas and the first black woman elected to a public office in Dallas. During her two and a half-terms in the Texas House, she was instrumental in forming the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and the Texas House Study Group, both organizations which helped strengthen the voice of black legislators. She confronted racism and employment discrimination in the Comptroller’s Office, withstanding public personal racial slurs hurled at her. She was integrally involved in the investigation of the Texas prison system, unearthing information that contributed to the reform of Texas prisons. She secured the passage of a bill creating a free breakfast program that would ultimately feed millions of low-income school children, one of her proudest accomplishments. And she led the House Committee on Labor serving as its Chairwoman, yet another first as no woman had ever been named to head a major legislative committee.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to serve as Regional Director Health, Education and Welfare. She was again the first woman and first African American to hold this position. She oversaw a region that had 7,000 employees with oversight offices in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico.  In July 1979, President Carter appointed her to serve as Assistant to the Director of Public Health, an appointment that required a move to Washington, D.C. Serving in that position until the end of the Carter administration, she developed friendships that would be helpful when she arrived in Congress, especially with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Upon her return to Dallas, she first began working as a consultant and then accepted an appointment as Vice-President of the Visiting Nurses’ Association. She was also appointed to serve as Vice Chairperson to the City of Dallas’ Health and Human Service Commission, a position that involved her in the growing AIDS crisis and the development of a public health response, experience that she would later take to Austin and Washington. 

In 1986, an opportunity arose for the election of an African American to the Texas Senate. Once again, Eddie Bernice was recruited to run for this office. She returned to the Texas legislature, one of only three women in the Senate and one of two African Americans. During that term, she successfully worked on a constitutional amendment that would prohibit investment in companies doing business with South Africa. She secured passage of the Texas Fair Housing Act to affirm an insistence on fair housing practices in Texas. She fought for and won the passage of a bill that would give women charged with violent offenses the right to raise a battered woman’s defense. 

During her second term as state senator, she dealt with the issue of redistricting. She was appointed to serve as Chair of the Special Subcommittee on Congressional Districts. The creation of viable minority districts in Texas proved to be divisive, colliding with incumbency concerns. Through her leadership of that committee, District 30 was created. It was a victory that she knew was rooted in the political activism of minority leaders who had come before her and for whom she was eternally grateful.  

In 1992, Eddie Bernice was elected by the voters of the newly formed District 30 to be their inaugural representative, launching a Congressional career that would span thirty years. Hers is a congressional career that is measured not just by the legislative results she attained, but how she did it. For most of her time in Congress, she was in the minority party. To get anything done, she had to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. She had to cultivate relationships, command respect, negotiate, and remain persistent.

Her legislative accomplishments touched many. She authored or co-authored over 300 bills that were passed by Congress and signed into law, making her one of the most effective legislators. Her interests were wide ranging including health care, veterans’ issues, voting rights, education, trade, climate change, environment, normalizing relations with Cuba, combatting sexual harassment, racial equality, economic development, and foreign relations. Through her assignment to the Transportation Committee, she addressed aviation, roadways, bridges, mass transit, inland ports, tunnels, water resources, flooding, power grids, broadband and internet access. The appointment to the Science Committee allowed her to work on issues related to NASA and space exploration, weather, scientific research, energy development, and the response to the pandemic.

Because of Congresswoman Johnson there is a federal 988 suicide hotline. She is the reason that the historic CHIPS and Science Act has important provisions for STEM education and funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Her work on that bill was recognized by President Biden’s comment “Eddie, this whole bill wouldn’t have gotten done without you. It really wouldn’t have.” It was her respect for the African American women known as the “Hidden Figures” that led to the award of well-deserved Congressional gold medals. It was, as the Arizona State University News wrote, her “real grit” that allowed her to persist and yield major deliverables for the nation and to be one of the most impactful legislators on science matters even though the cards were stacked against her because of her racial and gender identity. 

She held various leadership roles while in Congress. She was the first African American and first female to Chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. For that chairmanship, her portrait hangs in the Committee room, the only image of an African American and woman adorning those walls. She was the first African American woman to chair the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. She was the first African American woman to serve as dean of the Texas delegation.

Congresswoman Johnson believed in the strength of working together. Even before her election to Congress, she had witnessed the importance and impact of the Congressional Black Caucus so she proudly became Chair of the Caucus in 2001. She had the vision for the creation the Tri-Caucus, a coalition of the Congressional Asian Pacific American, Black and Hispanic caucuses, which would prove critical to address common issues from health care to broadband access, to immigration. She was instrumental in leading the Congressional Diversity & Innovation Caucus, the Congressional Homelessness Caucus, Congressional Lupus Caucus, and the Congressional Caucus of Bosnia.  

Congresswoman Johnson was also attentive to foreign issues. Her belief that women had a unique position to address war and conflict led her to create “A World of Women for World Peace” bringing women together annually to focus on human rights. She assisted in the drafting of national constitutions for Iraq, Bahrain, and Afghanistan, assuring that there would be express recognition of women’s rights. 

Locally, she was responsible for billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure projects: Love Field, DFW Airport, highway development, DART, Lewisville dam project, American Airlines arenas, flood control projects, streets, and so many more projects. Her contributions have been officially recognized in the naming of the Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station, Eddie Bernice Johnson STEM Academy, and Eddie Bernice Johnson Garden at Parkland Hospital.  

As she worked so diligently to address these many concerns, Congresswoman Johnson remained keenly aware that her strength was rooted in faith, family, and purpose. When she went to DC to work for the Carter Administration, she was determined that she “would never stop being a mother.” She looked forward to her nightly phone calls with Kirk, his being with her for events and trips. When Kirk married his wife, Sondra, she embraced her, believing that she had indeed gained a daughter. At her inaugural Congressional swearing-in, her two grandsons, Kirk II and David sat with her on the floor, her message that making things better for the next generation was her reason for her work. As Kirk’s family continued to grow with the birth of her last grandson, James, and then eventually great-grandchildren, she would make special trips, flying in for events even if she had to immediately return to Washington. She was determined to be a presence in their lives. 

Her love for family was rooted in her Waco childhood. Her parents were central in her life until their passings. Her sisters and brother, Sallye, Lee Helen, and Carl, were the people who best understood the path that she had traveled and gave her the understanding and support that could only come from siblings.   

She also drew encouragement and support from the organizations to which she belonged, the staffers working in her offices, the voters and campaign volunteers who helped secure her re-election and the constituents for whom she labored. She was very grateful for she understood that all that she had accomplished and the service that she had given would not have otherwise been possible. 

She is honored as an icon, trailblazer, and historic figure. She is also lovingly remembered as “the Congresswoman,” the woman who took time to talk, to mentor, to encourage, and to share her passion for making a difference.

She leaves to mourn her loss, her son, Dawrence Kirk Johnson, Sr., and daughter-in-law Sondra Dilworth Johnson of Dallas, Texas; grandchildren, Dawrence Kirk Johnson, II (Krystal) and  David Edward Johnson (Ashley) both of Arlington, Texas; James Lacy Johnson of Austin, Texas; great-grandchildren, Addison, Kennedy, Elizabeth “Lily”, Dawrence Kirk Johnson, III, Penelope, and Nehimiah; and her sister Sallye Moore of Grand Prairie, Texas; nieces and nephews, Gregory Moore (Juna) of Plano, Texas, Karlton Johnson (Rhonda) of Waco, Texas, and Kaneisha Johnson of Waco, Texas. She was preceded in death by her parents Edward and Lillie Mae Johnson, her sister Lee Helen Johnson Willis and her brother Carl Johnson. She leaves a core of “honorary sons and daughters,” special chosen brothers, Rodney Ellis and Les Weisbrod; honorary godson, Gary Hasty of Cedar Hill, Texas and a multitude of friends, associates and supporters who will miss her dearly.  

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