Nursing & Healthcare News

Farewell to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Looking back at the groundbreaking career of the first RN in Congress

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson speaking into microphone

On Jan. 3, 2023, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, RN, BSN, MPA (D-Texas-30), the first registered nurse elected to the House of Representatives, retired after 15 consecutive terms in Congress.

Nursing in a Segregated Era

Born in Waco, Texas, Johnson’s path to nursing began with a $30 correspondence course she completed while in high school. Her father insisted she go to college to study nursing, but there were no programs open to Black students in heavily segregated Texas, so in 1952, she enrolled in the nursing program at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana — her first experience of an integrated school.

After graduating, she returned to Texas and applied for a nursing job at the Dallas VA Hospital. It wasn’t easy: Listing her name as “Eddie B. Johnson” on the application got her in the door, but the interviewers were dismayed to discover that she was a Black woman rather than a white man!

The hospital refused her a place in the nurses’ dormitory because of her race, and Johnson experienced bias and bigotry from her colleagues. She also found patients reluctant to take her seriously because she looked so young. However, she persevered, eventually becoming the hospital’s chief psychiatric nurse and earning her BSN.

RN Career Events

From Social Activism to Politics

Throughout the ‘60s, Johnson fought for civil rights and desegregation, beginning by organizing boycotts of Dallas stores that restricted Black shoppers. She brought that same determination to her own hospital, rewriting racist policies and establishing institutional standards for affirmative action.

By the early ‘70s, people began to suggest that Johnson run for office. With the help of Stanley Marcus of the Neiman Marcus department store chain (whose stores she had previously boycotted) and two Dallas Cowboys, she ran a successful underdog race for the Texas House of Representatives in 1972.

In the statehouse, Johnson campaigned for bills like maternity leave for teachers and free breakfasts for low-income school kids. She also earned her master’s of public administration degree in 1976.

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The Carter administration then tapped Johnson to become a regional director for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1977 to 1981. She left politics for a time to pursue business opportunities, but in 1986, she was elected to the Texas State Senate.

15 Terms in Congress

In 1992, the people of Dallas’s newly created 30th Congressional District overwhelmingly elected Johnson as their first representative. Her victory made her the first registered nurse to be elected to national office in the U.S.

As a congresswoman, Johnson championed science, healthcare, and issues affecting nurses, including the still-ongoing effort to establish a national nurse for public health. “Whatever discussion I am a part of, I never miss the opportunity to talk about the value of professional nurses,” she says.

Johnson won reelection 14 times, always by strong margins, but in November 2021, at the age of 85, she announced that her 15th term would be her last.

Although she’s said she had to be pushed and prodded into politics, Johnson leaves behind a legacy of groundbreaking achievement and inspiration for Black women, people of color, and nurses of all races

AARON SEVERSON is the associate editor of Working Nurse.

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