Skip to main content

Senfronia Thompson and the Power of Persistence

The Texas representative is the longest-serving woman in a state legislature. She’s stayed so long because there’s so much to be done.

By Kelley Griffin  |  March 25, 2024
senfronia thompson texas

Texas Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s first guiding light was her great-grandmother, a mother of 16 who ran a thriving boarding house in Houston. She was her own boss, and that’s what Thompson wanted for herself.

So this daughter of a maid and granddaughter of a sharecropper set her sights on college and dental school. But that would have meant relocating to Tennessee, since no Texas college of dentistry would admit a Black student then. Thompson was married at that point, and she and her husband decided to stay in Houston. So she switched to teaching special education, and they began a family. 

Then an unexpected opportunity arose: The neighborhood where Thompson grew up was featured in a newly drawn Texas House district. So she decided to run. 

“I had worked in some campaigns for people, you know, licking stamps, mailing envelopes, knocking on doors. And I saw how things were going. And I said, ‘Oh, I could do this,’” Thompson recalls. “So I talked to my husband. I said, ‘I want go into politics.’ He said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ And I don’t think he really thought I was going to win.”

But she did. It was 1972, and Thompson had big plans.

Women’s History Month

This story was first published in the Summer 2022 print edition of State Legislatures magazine. We’re posting it here for Women’s History Month, which began in 1980 as Women’s History Week. Read more

“I thought that I would be able to go and just turn the world upside down and solve all the problems,” she says. She had a long list of improvements, including at least half a dozen to help teachers and improve classrooms. She also wanted to end disparities in primarily Black schools and communities, expand workers’ rights to collective bargaining and address shortcomings in nursing home care. 

Thompson laughs when she thinks of her audacity at a time when she didn’t really understand the first thing about the role of a state lawmaker, or the rules and processes. 

But she learned. Now 83, Thompson has served for nearly 50 years, making her both the longest-serving woman and the longest-serving African American in a state legislature. She has stayed so long because there’s so much to be done.

“Every session that I’ve been there, there’s always some legislation that you feel so positive about and there’s such a driving force within you that you know it’s something that really needs to be done,” Thompson says. “Then something gets added to your list. Try to get this done, try to get that done, do this, do that, you know? And when you look around, time has passed.”

As eager as she was in those early years, she soon learned that much of the change she wanted would require both time and patience in a challenging environment.

“It’s difficult. The only thing I can tell you is that I just have to hold onto God’s unchanging hand in everything I do,” Thompson says. “You just have to keep trying to find ways and means in which to get your point over.”

Thoroughly Prepared

Until 2003, Thompson, a Democrat, seemingly had the advantage of working in a state where the three branches were controlled by her party. And she had prepared herself thoroughly: She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Texas Southern University; a master’s in education from Prairie View A&M University; a law degree from TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law; and a master’s in international law from the University of Houston. But as a Black woman, it was hard to make headway in an era when all women were prohibited from getting mortgages or credit cards on their own.

Still, Thompson consistently found ways to gain support from her Democratic colleagues and from Republicans after they gained control in 2003.

She has succeeded in passing bills establishing alimony, increasing the minimum wage, recognizing hate crimes, addressing human trafficking, extending protection for domestic violence victims, creating drug courts and expanding insurance coverage for women’s health. She went to Washington, D.C., on her own dime in 1978 to convince the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division to address disparities in public university funding.

In testimony before Congress last summer on the federal voting rights bill, Thompson told the committee how she had voted at a time when she had to pay a poll tax; it wasn’t eliminated in Texas until 1966, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

Equal Treatment

Time and again Thompson has made impassioned pleas with her colleagues that she is fighting to simply have the same treatment they expect for themselves. Like in her first days in the Legislature when she called out a colleague on the floor because he had told her he called her his “Black mistress.”

“And I was just determined to set the record straight that I was a duly elected member of that body, and even though I was female, I was entitled to the same respect that everyone else had in that body,” Thompson recalls. 

Or recently when she made the case for her proposal to ban police chokeholds in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

“I said, ‘I would just like to have the privilege of going to bed at night, like you do, without having to worry about that for my children.’”

“I just made the plea,” she said. “I said, ‘Every night at 10 o’clock I’m calling to see where my sons are. I’m calling you to see if they have not been the victim of police brutality or something like that.’ I said, ‘I would just like to have the privilege of going to bed at night, like you do, without having to worry about that for my children,’” Thompson said. The measure became law in 2021. 

Looking back to when she was newly elected and thought she could set things right, and quickly, she says she had a lot of anger. It often didn’t serve her, she says, though sometimes it made sense to show how fired up she was. She recalls with a chuckle how she approached one opponent on her equal pay bill, shoe in hand, and said, “Do you want to meet your maker?”

Thompson says she has made progress on the issues that matter deeply to her, but what remains can feel like mountains. 

“I tell you what I always remind myself of: persistence. Water cannot cut a rock, but if it just persistently hits against that rock, it’ll get a hole in it. And that hole will get bigger and bigger,” she says. “Persistence is one of the things that always gives you an opportunity to get some of a goal, and then increase that goal, then increase that goal.” 

 Thompson is running for reelection—unopposed—to keep after it.

Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.