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First registered nurse elected to Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson remembered as a trailblazer


Johnson, who died Sunday at the age of 88, was hailed for her work in healthcare and the House of Representatives.

Former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson leaves more than a legacy of smashed glass ceilings.

Image: Library of Congress

Former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the first registered nurse elected to Congress, died Sunday at the age of 88. (Image: Library of Congress)

Johnson, the first registered nurse ever elected to Congress, died Sunday at the age of 88. She claimed a number of firsts in her remarkable life. She was also the first Black woman to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, as the Associated Press reports.

In that role, Johnson played a critical role in the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, Vice President Kamala Harris said in tribute of Johnson. The measure invests billions in science and technology, and Johnson pushed for provisions to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Harris praised her as “a visionary, a pioneer, and a fighter.”

U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Texas Democrat, said Johnson’s work on that legislation, signed by President Biden in 2022, will be part of her lasting legacy. Crockett said in a statement that she liked to call Johnson “a quiet storm.”

“While most people will only know about the historic number of jobs that are being created throughout the country as a result of this law, many won’t know that Chairwoman Johnson required this bill to also have investments for STEM and research at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Crockett said. “For decades to come, her work will live on.”

Johnson spent 30 years in Congress before leaving the House in January 2023. Jackson’s experience in nursing, and the discrimination she encountered, fueled much of her fight for equality and social justice.

Due to segregation in Texas, Johnson entered a nursing program at St. Mary’s College at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where she received a nursing certificate in 1955, The Texas Tribune recounts.

She was hired as a nurse at a Dallas VA hospital, and staff were shocked to see she was Black when she arrived to start her job, the AP recounts. She said other workers would enter rooms ahead of her to assure patients that she was a qualified nurse, she told The Dallas Morning News in 2020. Johnson called it “the most blatant, overt racism that I ever experienced in my life,” she told the Morning News.

Eventually, she became the first Black female chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas VA hospital, the Texas Tribune reported.

Johnson became the first Black woman elected to any office in Dallas, and the first Black resident of Dallas elected to Congress when she won a House seat in 1993.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama, said in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) that she was heartbroken over the loss of Johnson, whom she described as a mentor.

“She was a giant among giants,” Sewell said. “May her legacy continue to live on through her impactful work and the lives she touched.”

Congresswoman Nikema Williams said on X that Johnson “paved the way for so many of us in Congress.”

“Her legacy will truly live in perpetuity,” Williams said.

President Biden pointed to Johnson’s lifetime of service in healthcare and the halls of Congress. In a statement released by the White House, Biden saluted her work as a “dedicated nurse” in caring for veterans and said her leadership was “crucial” in passing the CHIPS and Science Act.

“Eddie Bernice turned a childhood dream to work in medicine into a lifetime of service, fighting to get millions of Americans access to healthcare, education, and opportunity,” Biden said.

The American Nurses Association paid tribute to Johnson on X, calling her “a trailblazer who shattered many glass ceilings throughout her groundbreaking career.”

“We are grateful for Johnson's contributions to nursing and our country,” the association said.

Three days of memorial services are slated to begin Monday, concluding with graveside services Wednesday, according to NBC 5 in Dallas.

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