Longest-serving African-American, woman discusses history serving in Legislature

Albert Zhao

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the longest-serving African-American and the longest-serving woman in Texas legislative history, discussed her experience Wednesday in government during the Barbara Jordan National Forum at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. 

Thompson, a civil rights activist, said she felt trepidation after her election in 1973, because she would have been stopped for the color of her skin if seen walking around the Capitol building as an unelected citizen.

“That was a time I couldn’t even walk on the grounds of the Capitol because I was African-American,” Thompson said. “Yet African-Americans built the building.”

LBJ Professor Peniel Joseph described Thompson, who works extensively for women’s and minorities’ rights in Texas, as one of the “unsung champions” of the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy. 

“When we think about Representative Thompson, she is really somebody who speaks truth to power,” Joseph said.

Joseph listed Thompson’s numerous achievements, such as authoring the state’s first alimony bill and the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which increased penalties for crimes that targets minorities, gay people and others after the 1998 murder of an African-American male in Jasper, Texas. 

Thompson said she had to defend herself in the Legislature against racial discrimination, which was sometimes in the form of sexual harassment.

“One of my colleagues called me ‘his black mistress,’” Thompson said.

The state has made historic progress in rectifying discrimination, Thompson said, but people must be prepared to raise their voices against further injustice.

“We cannot afford to be silent,” Thompson said. “It’s up to each one of us (to) speak up about what’s wrong.”

Thompson said the Texas Legislature has still not resolved issues that have been debated since she first entered the Capitol, such as CPS funding, public education funding and women’s issues.

Regarding women’s issues, Thompson said there is the lack of treatment for postpartum depression, which only provides 60 days of free counseling under Medicare. 

“Everyone is different in the treatment process,” Thompson said. “Sixty days may be enough time, (but) in many cases it is not enough time.” 

Forum co-chair Roosevelt Neely, a public affairs graduate student, said Thompson’s speech reminded him of the importance of public service in politics.

“To hear her experience … gave the perspective of why you should be a public servant,” Neely said.