Eddie Bernice Johnson is a champion of minority and women’s rights representing Texas in the United States House of Representatives. Not only that, she fights to support the sciences and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields.
Though a public servant of the 30th district in Dallas County, Eddie started her life in Waco, Texas. Born to Edward and Lillie Mae Johnson in Waco on December 3, 1935 (her childhood home pinned below on map), she attended A. J. Moore High School, the only school in Waco for African Americans at the time, where she graduated in 1952, third on the honor roll. Just as she would be very active in the community later in life, she participated in many organizations at A. J. Moore as well, including the Dramatic Art Club, J. A. Kirk Chorus, Book Lovers’ Club, National Honor Society, Student Council, library staff, Elm Wood Y-Teens, and editorial staff of the Moore Highlight.
Eddie came to her love of learning and community involvement naturally, as her parents emphasized such values. Her parents stressed education and culture, reading novels to their children from a young age and taking them to plays at Baylor University. These options were more limited, though, as the family could only attend plays on the designated “black days” at the theater. Both Edward and Lillie Mae then became activists after African Americans succeeded in breaking the state’s white primary system in 1944. Committed Democrats, they worked hard to educate fellow African Americans on the importance of voting and helped to get them to the polls. Eddie affectionately referred to her mother as a “little crusader,” fighting to better the rights of African Americans in Texas and in Waco. Her parents’ dedication to hard work and views of progress led Eddie to believe neither her race nor gender should ever hold her back.
Eddie then attended St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame and received a nursing degree. She would follow this degree with two more, a bachelor of science in nursing from Texas Christian University, and two decades later a master’s in public health from Southern Methodist University. Eddie was hired right out of St. Mary’s as a psychiatric nurse at the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Dallas. Little did she know, the administration did not realize she was black when they hired her. Upon her arrival, she had to fight to keep her job, and she was not allowed to live in the dormitory with the other nurses. She endured extreme racism from her colleagues and was continually denied the ability to help with projects. But soon her work spoke for itself, and a year and a half later Eddie was promoted to chief nurse, a position she would hold at the VA in Dallas for sixteen years. Early in her tenure at the VA she also met and married Lacy Kirk Johnson and had one son, Dawrence Kirk.
After the birth of her son, Eddie had her hands full with her job, her husband, and now a child, but she soon added activism to the list. While shopping in Dallas, she was barred from trying on a hat in a store because of her race. She discovered that as a rule black women were not allowed to try on certain clothing items in stores before buying them, and this infuriated her. She immediately organized a boycott of the department store and others with fifty other African American women. The boycott worked quickly, and soon those stores were allowing black women to try on items before purchase. Eddie had her first taste of activism, and she turned next to ardently supporting African American politicians. She would famously push young Dawrence, who goes by Kirk, in a stroller while passing out campaign materials for various African American candidates in shopping center parking lots.
Though this involvement was a far cry from running for office herself, circumstances soon changed for Eddie. After a painful divorce, a friend suggested that Eddie run for the Texas House. She originally rebuffed the idea, worried about caring for her son and maintaining the stability her career as a nurse provided, but the seed had been planted. The final push came in 1972 when Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus offered her an executive assistant job if she would run for office. Kirk even took cooking classes at school to be able to help his mother at home during her campaign. Eddie Bernice was officially set to run for House District 33.
Eddie was clearly the underdog with only $5,000 and no manpower. She set up shop in her own dining room, making campaign calls herself and going door to door with Kirk. She emphasized to the African American community that she was ready to fight for their rights, campaigning on her prior role as president of the National Council of Negro Women among other civic organizations. She also emphasized her career as a nurse and her service of veterans, wanting to fight for better health care if she were elected. She said of her campaign, “I [was] interested solely in the people and in reflecting the needs of the constituency.” Reflect her constituents’ needs she did, and she won in a landslide to became the first black woman to serve in an elected office in Dallas. From there she was the first African American woman vice chair of the Texas State Democratic Convention and helped to form the Black Legislative Caucus. She was also chosen to chair the House Committee on Labor, the first woman to ever hold this position. Her main issues of focus were health care, education and science, public housing, and women’s rights. Eddie’s work in the legislature did not go unnoticed, and after three terms in the House she was called up by the Carter administration in 1977 to be regional director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the first woman and first African American in this position. After serving faithfully, her tenure ended with Carter’s defeat and she took a hiatus from politics.
But the call to serve came again in 1986 when Eddie ran for and won the senatorial position for the 23rd district of Texas. She was the first Dallas woman and first African American elected to the Texas Senate since Reconstruction. Her concerns continued to be people oriented, as she focused on issues of health care, housing, race, gender, economic development, and employment. She served in the finance and education committees and chaired the subcommittee on health and human services. Opportunity then came knocking once more in 1991 when Eddie was chair of the subcommittee of congressional redistricting. The committee’s efforts created a new 30th district, one composed of mostly minority voters, for which Eddie decided to run in 1993. She again scored an astounding victory—107,830 votes to 37,853 votes—becoming the first nurse elected to the US Congress. Her work in Congress mirrored her work in the state legislature and her focus remained on equality and advancement for all people. Even after accusations of gerrymandering led to a Supreme Court ruling against the Texas legislature, Eddie continued to win her seat for the redrawn 30th district. She has served on and led several committees, and she is currently in her thirteenth term at the age of eighty-three.
Eddie Bernice Johnson has lived a life of many firsts and paved the way for many women and African Americans in politics. Her emphasis on STEM education, women and minority rights, and more have changed the face of Dallas County, and Waco is proud to claim her as one of its own.