Texas Rep. Senfronia Thompson is longest-serving Black lawmaker in House for record 50 years

Melanie Lawson Image
Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Rep. Senfronia Thompson has been in House for 50 years
Meet Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the longest-serving lawmaker in the State House. She was one of the first Black women to serve since Reconstruction.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The state legislature is in session, working on various issues. While you may know some faces in Austin, like the governor and lieutenant governor, there's one longtime legislator you may not know.

"The first thing I thought about when I was there 50 years ago, was that I was a person who was not allowed on the grounds because of my ethnicity just a few years earlier. And I was in awe because of the fact that I had a chance to go and serve in the legislature," Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, remembers. "When we went in, in 1973, women could not get a credit card in their name. I don't care how much money they had, they couldn't even buy property in their name. Everything had to be done through a man."

But one male lawmaker found out he'd crossed the line when he called Thompson his "Black mistress." She was furious and took a rare personal privilege to call out what she called his disrespect to women.

"I just couldn't understand why he would do that," she said, admitting that it cost her a lot. "It cost me my legislation. It cost me a lot of friendships that I probably would've made, but I gained my dignity."

Ms. T, as she's affectionately called, is known for that dignity and her ability to bridge different sides.

"In a lot of ways, she's the conscience of the Texas Legislature," former state senator and current Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who worked with Thompson for more than two decades. "Regardless of whether someone is to the right or left, Democrat or Republican, she is the one common thread that people turn to when it comes to issues that tends to divide people."

She's also known for her fight when she believes something's not right. Thompson joined Democratic lawmakers who left the state during the 2021 session, concerned about changes in the state's voting laws. Eyewitness News' Melanie Lawson ran into them in D.C.

"This fight is so important for my constituents to have a voice in the Democracy," Thompson said then.

Now, as she recalls that time, she said, "we couldn't do anything because we were just outnumbered. But we had to take a stand. And a lot of our colleagues were very disappointed with us, but I also recognized a lot of them never stood in my shoes. They have never been denied the right to vote. They have never struggled to get the right to vote."

A mural with Thompson's eyes and the scales of justice downtown now overlooks the city she loves, commissioned by Ellis, her longtime friend.

"I was quite surprised about it. But it made me feel good because it represents justice," she said.

"She and I worked on hate crime legislation," Ellis said.

The James Byrd Act, named after a Black man who was dragged to death by three white racists in Jasper, took 10 years to pass. But he said she was responsible for pulling together a bipartisan broad-based coalition.

Thompson is also known for reaching across the aisle, working with some of her most conservative colleagues.

"We argue, we disagree on things, but I try to stick to the issues. And I don't get personal with them," she said.

And she says she's still got a lot to do.

"I believe that even though I'm 84 years old, I've still got time on my side," Thompson said.

When asked, "Do you figure you'll stay a while longer?" Without missing a beat, Thompson said, "Absolutely. What would the legislature do without me?"

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