Like many great politicians, Eddie Bernice Johnson was often referred to simply by her initials: EBJ. Since becoming the first Black woman and first registered nurse to be elected to public office in Dallas over 50 years ago, she carved out a mighty legacy as a pathbreaker and community leader.
Practically everything she did in her career was a historic first. During her 30 years in Congress, she became the most powerful Democrat in North Texas and a widely known figure in national politics.
After a long and impactful career representing South Dallas’ 30th Congressional District—which she helped first draw as a majority-minority seat—she finally retired from office in 2021. On the eve of 2024, Johnson passed away at the age of 89.
Before leaving her seat, she made sure she had a say in who would succeed her, endorsing then-state Representative Jasmine Crockett, who went on to win a contested primary race for that seat. In a statement, Crockett said that EBJ “was, as I liked to refer to her, a quiet storm. She 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 added. “Every day that passes is a day that I dedicate to continuing her work and attempting to fill her shoes.”
Johnson was born in the 1930s in Waco and began her career in Dallas, where she eventually became the first African American to serve as chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas VA hospital.
She became active in local politics and, when the courts struck down the city’s use of “at large” legislative seats (which favored white politicians), Johnson ran and won a seat representing the Oak Cliff neighborhood in the Texas House in 1972, prevailing over racist and misogynistic attacks from her opponents. From there, she became the first woman to chair a major House committee; she then became the first African American woman from Dallas to hold a seat in the Texas Senate since the Reconstruction era.
In the upper legislative chamber, she led a prolonged campaign to create the first majority-Black congressional district in Dallas—and overcame significant opposition from white members of her own Democratic party to finally do so in 1991. She became the first to hold the seat and, for 30 years, never let go. To this day, the 30th is still Dallas’ only majority nonwhite congressional district.
In Congress, seniority brings with it the power to secure funding for priority projects back home, and Johnson used her tenure to help finance major infrastructure and transportation projects in North Texas.
As Gromer Jeffers, the Dallas Morning News’ veteran chronicler of the city’s political scene, wrote in his EBJ obituary, the congresswoman—like any other politician—had her shortcomings and her critics.
“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,” Jeffers wrote. “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.”
But as Jeffers noted, she was also a fierce fighter for her chosen causes.
EBJ’s power in Congress reached its apex in 2018 when Democrats took back control of the House and she became the first woman to chair the powerful Science, Space, and Technology Committee, a post she held until her retirement.
Many of her fellow Democratic politicians had long coveted her powerful seat and waited patiently (and not so patiently) for her to step aside. Powerful and ambitious pols like state Senator Royce West and County Commissioner Wiley Price saw their chance pass by—and by the time she announced her retirement in 2022, a new generation of younger politicians lined up to succeed her.
EBJ opted to tap Jasmine Crockett, a feisty first-term state legislator who rankled the establishment, to take her place.
“While I was honored,” Crockett wrote in her statement, “I was also bewildered when Chairwoman Johnson called me and asked me to run to represent Texas 30. … 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.”