Texas sent its first woman to Congress in 1966. Why has she been largely forgotten?

The late U.S. Rep. Lera Thomas can't be found in the Texas State History Museum. And she's missing from most Texas history textbooks. Her tenure was short — but not without action.

U.S. Rep. Lera Thomas, the first Texas woman elected to Congress. Her husband, Albert Thomas, whom she replaced in a special election after his death, is pictured bottom right.
U.S. Rep. Lera Thomas, the first Texas woman elected to Congress. Her husband, Albert Thomas, whom she replaced in a special election after his death, is pictured bottom right.  Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Stephen F. Austin State University

Early in her career, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas kept correcting supporters who congratulated her on being the second Texas woman — after Barbara Jordan — to get elected to Congress.

But she wasn't the second. And Barbara Jordan was not the first.

Another woman nearly lost to Texas history broke that glass ceiling in 1966.

The late U.S. Rep. Lera Millard Thomas can't be found in the Texas State History Museum. She's missing from most Texas history textbooks. And on the rare occasion she's referenced in newspaper clippings and historical records, she's referred to as “Mrs. Albert Thomas” — hardly the usual title afforded former members of Congress.

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But for decades in Texas politics, Lera Thomas both witnessed and made history. She knew presidents and House speakers. She came under enemy fire while on a trip to Vietnam. And she sat next to President John F. Kennedy on his last night alive.

Lera Thomas succeeded her late husband, U.S. Rep. Albert Thomas of Houston, finishing his term after winning a special election after his death and serving in Congress for nine months.

“I’m not surprised that she is lost to history,” longtime Washington correspondent Eleanor Clift said. “It was not unusual then for a widow to fulfill a husband’s term, and since she declined to run for a full term for herself, she didn’t serve long enough to make much of a mark.”

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Albert Thomas was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1936 — a political underdog who proved adept at both campaigning and maneuvering in Washington. Lera Thomas was his high school sweetheart from Nacogdoches; she relocated to Houston to support his career as a prosecutor and campaigned alongside him.

“He'd go in one direction to picnics and barbecues and I would go in the other direction,” she told the LBJ Presidential Library in 1969.

Once in Congress, Albert Thomas climbed the ranks with his wife as a quiet, supportive force. A few years in, he made a play to serve on the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee. There was one hitch: A force of nature from Texas named Lyndon Baines Johnson had just joined the delegation, and he had designs on the committee, too.

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“At that time, President Roosevelt favored Lyndon Johnson, and President Roosevelt pressed all the Texas members because they had to vote on who was to be on the Appropriations Committee,” Lera Thomas said in a 1984 interview with the Houston Public Library.

But Albert Thomas had better relationships within the delegation — and beat back the future Master of the Senate. And the Thomases and the Johnsons eventually became close allies. They lived in the same Washington, D.C., apartment building, and Johnson tasked Albert Thomas with being his Houston political powerbroker.

Albert Thomas' decades on the Appropriations Committee remain consequential to Houston and the rest of Texas; he secured funds for parkways and ship channels. But his greatest achievement was bringing NASA to Houston.

“I think he gave about five years of his life on that, because he was so afraid that he wouldn’t get it,” Lera Thomas told the Houston Public Library. “It was a terrific thing because there were so many people that were trying to influence President Kennedy.”

“And, of course, President Kennedy had a terrific decision to make even against his own state," she added, "because MIT wanted it, you see, and California, where they had the biggest electoral vote of any state almost. So he certainly did a favor [to] my husband and all of Texas, of course, especially Houston.”

Around the time of the NASA deliberations, Albert Thomas was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was still able to serve in Congress but was preparing to retire ahead of the 1964 campaign. In Lera Thomas' telling, Kennedy pleaded with her husband not to retire and made plans to attend a Houston gala in Albert Thomas' honor on Nov. 21, 1963 — a "wonderful gesture."

But what started out as a dinner to convince Albert Thomas not to retire turned into a much bigger event. Kennedy had his eye on carrying Texas in 1964.

“First, he'd go to San Antonio, then he'd come here, then he'd go to Fort Worth, then he'd go to Dallas, then he'd go to Austin," Lera Thomas said in 1969. "Well, it became very involved.”

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The Houston dinner ended up being Kennedy’s last before his assassination, and the person seated next to him was Lera Thomas.

After the dinner, where Albert Thomas committed to running for re-election, Lera Thomas stayed behind in Houston to entertain out-of-town dignitaries. The political entourage, meanwhile, flew to Fort Worth. Albert Thomas was a few cars behind Kennedy when the shots rang out on Nov. 22 in Dallas. He was aboard Air Force One during the swearing in of President Johnson.

Albert Thomas was still in office when he succumbed to cancer in February 1966. Houston political players asked Lera Thomas to succeed her husband, and she easily won a March special election.

In the nine months Lera Thomas represented Houston in Congress, no event was as momentous as a trip she made to Vietnam, near the end of her term. In theory, the trip was to deliver letters to and from Texas servicemen serving in the war. In reality, it was to distract her from her grief.

“In a way I was running away from myself, because it was the first Christmas after my husband had died, and I had had a very strenuous year,” she said in 1969.

But American prospects in the war were darkening, and the mere notion of a Democratic colleague traveling to Vietnam rattled President Johnson. As she was preparing for the trip, he demanded she fly with him from Washington to Texas.

“So he said, ‘Come up here;’ I couldn't imagine what he wanted,” Lera Thomas recalled to the LBJ Library in the 1969 interview. “And finally he came over and he said, ‘What do you mean — going to Vietnam?’ I said, "Mr. President, you went to Vietnam and I'm not nearly as important as you are.’”

“He said, ‘All right, then, go on and go.’”

While touring the country in a military helicopter, Thomas encountered a moment of high drama, according to her daughter, Anne Thomas Lasater, whose family still has photos of her mother wearing fatigues and meeting military generals.

“All of the sudden the helicopter they were in was shot at and damaged, but not to the point where they couldn’t land safely,” Lasater said.

Lera Thomas was still in Vietnam when her congressional term ended on Jan. 3, 1967. She had not run for re-election.

Instead, she stayed on in Vietnam as a correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. When she returned home in 1967, Thomas went to work for USAID, an independent government agency responsible for foreign civilian aid and development assistance.

Lasater said her parents, while Democrats, were not ideological. Indeed, Lera Thomas’ conclusions on the Vietnam War didn't align with her party's.

“I couldn't see any other thing that we could do but support what we had started out to do,” Lera Thomas said in 1969. “I still think that we should try to win it honorably and at least have — we can't just withdraw.”

It is not entirely clear why Lera Thomas chose not to run for a full term. Lasater thinks her mother was tired. It had been three decades since she got to Washington, she was 66 years old and her true passion was back home in Nacogdoches.

Lera Thomas returned to her hometown in 1968 and began restoring old buildings into a historic village that would become known as Millard’s Crossing.

“The last thing I ever thought of doing was to be a member of Congress," she said in 1969, "and I had worked hard."

Claire Parker contributed to this story.