How Eddie Bernice Johnson helped shape Dallas in more than 50 years of public service

President Joe Biden joined friends, family and constituents mourning longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who left an impact on public transportation, science and the North Texas cities she represented for decades.

By Toluwani Osibamowo, KERA NewsJanuary 9, 2024 9:30 am, ,

From KERA News:

Mourners including President Joe Biden gathered in Dallas Tuesday night to honor the legacy of former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who was remembered as a trailblazer who helped shape North Texas over more than half a century in public office.

Johnson, the first Black woman elected to any public office in Dallas County, was praised by those who spoke at Monday’s wake for her efforts to improve Dallas in both the state legislature and in Washington.

“Everything that y’all touch or look at, you can probably think about Eddie Bernice Johnson, and recognize that you are still connected to her,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett, who replaced Johnson after the longtime Congresswoman retired last year.

Johnson’s family, colleagues and the North Texas community began the new year mourning her death Dec. 31, 2023, at 89.

Johnson’s wake took place Monday night at Concord Church in Dallas, where her funeral will also be held Tuesday. Biden spoke with Johnson’s family privately, but did not make a public statement at the wake and prayed alone in front of her casket.

Johnson will be buried Wednesday at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, which is reserved for governors, members of Congress and other significant figures in Texas government.

Speakers repeatedly stressed many of the qualities Johnson was known for throughout her decades in office as an influential public servant with a knack for lifting up others.

“If you were a mentor, she was going to mentor you,” said former congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. “And she was a woman who said what she meant and meant what she said.”

Smiley N. Pool/ AP / Pool The Dallas Morning News

The casket of former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson departs the Hall of State in Fair Park after she lied in state on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Dallas. Johnson, a trailblazing North Texas Democrat who served 15 terms in Congress, died at age 89 on Dec. 31. Her funeral will be held Tuesday at Concord Church in Dallas.

In an interview with KERA, Texas Sen. Royce West remembered meeting Johnson — then in the Texas House of Representatives — in the 1970s. She was touring the University of Texas at Arlington while West was a student. It was his first-ever encounter with a politician.

The two went on to form a relationship lasting more than 40 years, with Johnson rising to the state Senate before heading to Congress in 1992, and West becoming her successor in Texas Senate District 23.

“There are generations that are not born yet to hear the story of Eddie Bernice Johnson and the contributions that she’s made, not just for the African American community, but for the state of Texas,” West said. “And we need to make certain that we — doing my tour of duty — that I keep that alive, that I talk about some of the things that she’s done here and make certain that we honor her at the state government, which I know that we will.”

Despite grim allegations surrounding the circumstances of her death, Johnson’s legacy as a trailblazing Dallas congresswoman is already cemented in history.

Smiley N. Pool/ AP / Pool The Dallas Morning News

U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett speaks during a prayer service for former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson at Concord Church on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Dallas. Johnson, a trailblazing North Texas Democrat who served 15 terms in Congress, died on Dec. 31.

A Dallas focus

Johnson, born in Waco, began her career as a nurse, eventually becoming the chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas’ VA hospital.

Johnson was elected to Texas’ 30th congressional seat in 1992, now a predominantly Hispanic and Black district which represents parts of Dallas, Cedar Hill, Duncanville, DeSoto, Lancaster and other cities. She held the position for 30 years before she stopped seeking reelection, stepping down in 2023.

West said an elected official can only remain in office as long as Johnson did by doing right by her constituents.

“She was staying in contact with them, making certain they understood what she was doing,” he said. “She was awarded with their continued support, based on the longevity that she served as a U.S. congressperson, as a state senator, as a state representative.”

Even while in Washington, Johnson continued to push for change in Dallas. Among other things, she secured funding for Dallas’ Southern Gateway Project, the Greater Downtown Dallas Master Plan, and incorporation of mental health into pediatric care at Children’s Health in Dallas.

Tom Fox / The Dallas Morning News / Pool Photo

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, right, listens to former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, as they ride the DART train from Mockingbird Station to Lovers Lane in Dallas, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Johnson, who passed away Dec. 31, 2023, was known in part for her efforts to bolster public transportation in Dallas.

Attention to transportation

Johnson also served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she made efforts to funnel funding toward Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

In its statement of condolence, DART acknowledged her role in securing funding for its bus operations and light rail systems, specifically the Red, Blue and Green Lines, totaling almost $1 billion, in addition to hundreds of millions more for the agency.

“Talk about an individual who comes along once in a lifetime who has just this wide view of the benefits of serving our people, serving the residents of North Texas, serving their needs, putting their needs above her own,” Gordon Shattles, DART’s assistant vice president of external relations, told KERA. “She is one in a million.”

For her efforts, DART renamed Union Station, Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station in her honor in 2019. DART also awarded Johnson its first Legacy Award in August 2023 as the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary.

“The decision was very simple,” Shattles said. “Eddie Bernice Johnson, over 30 years in government, but truly a friend of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and, through us, a friend of all of the residents of North Texas who rely on public transportation every day.”

Juan Figueroa / Dallas Morning News / Pool Photo

United States President Joe Biden walks with Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina during U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s wake at Concord Church in Dallas on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Johnson, a trailblazing North Texas Democrat who served 15 terms in Congress, died on Dec. 31.

Opening the door in STEM

In 2019, Johnson became the first Black and first female chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. During her tenure, Johnson helped pass the CHIPS and Science Act, which put billions of dollars toward semiconductor research and development.

Locally, Johnson hosted an annual lecture series in partnership with the University of Texas at Dallas to expose high school students to STEM subjects. In 2019, Dallas ISD named a STEM-focused elementary school in Wilmer after Johnson.

Shirley Malcom, director of STEM Equity Achievement Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was also a longtime friend of Johnson’s. She called Johnson a “tireless” advocate for science.

“Not just for science … but for science that could support equity, science that could benefit from having the voices of underrepresented people that were present in the work that was to be done,” Malcom said.

Malcom herself experienced years of being the only Black woman in academic and scientific environments. She said she connected with Johnson not only because they shared that struggle, but because Johnson seemed determined to change that narrative for others.

And Malcom said while Johnson strived to make contributions that benefited the world, Dallas remained a priority.

“I was always kind of envious of [Dallas] having Congresswoman Johnson … as a person who understood and valued the work that was to be done in order to prepare the next generation for careers in science and engineering,” Malcom said.

At Monday’s wake, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins remembered her legacy in politics, her kindness and her giving spirit.

“She was a true legend and a mentor to me,” Jenkins said. “As county judge, as a parent, and as a person.”

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and KERA. Thanks for donating today.