Fort Worth

Leader, educator, friend — Dionne Bagsby, first black Tarrant County commissioner, dies

Dionne Phillips Bagsby, the first woman of color and the first woman Tarrant County Commissioner to sit on the court, died Thursday at age 82.
Dionne Phillips Bagsby, the first woman of color and the first woman Tarrant County Commissioner to sit on the court, died Thursday at age 82. Courtesy

Called “a mentor and friend,” Dionne Phillips Bagsby, the first woman and first African-American elected to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, died Thursday morning.

She was 82.

In a statement, the family said Bagsby was surrounded by her loved ones and close friends when she died.

“We are grateful for the overwhelming outpouring of love and support from friends and family from all over the country,” the statement said. “Our mother had an affinity for all people and committed herself to improving the lives of women and children. She leaves a legacy of public service that will impact and empower residents of Tarrant County and Texas for generations to come.”

At the time of her election, Bagsby unseated a 20-year incumbent and became the only African-American female county commissioner in the State of Texas.

Bagsby, originally from Illinois, had a lifelong passion for education. After she moved to Fort Worth with her husband, Jim Bagsby, in the 1960s, she worked to integrate Fort Worth schools, where she worked as a speech therapist.

She spent much of her time recruiting and encouraging others to run for office or become involved in community groups.

Spurred by community support, Bagsby decided to run for office and entered the race for County Commissioner Precinct 1. She won the 1988 race, defeating 20-year incumbent Richard “Dick” Andersen in the Democratic primary.

Roy C. Brooks, who took Bagsby’s seat on the court in 2005, remembered her fondly.

Brooks worked for 14 years as her chief of staff while she served on the court, where she was an advocate for health care, education and increasing minority employment.

“Dionne always said she was a not a politician, she was a public servant,” Brooks said.

Among Bagsby’s greatest accomplishments was working to decentralize John Peter Smith Hospital services from one location downtown to community clinics spread out across the county. Bagsby focused on getting services to people in their communities, he said.

Brooks ran for the commissioners court when Bagsby retired in 2005. Even after he took office, he turned to her for guidance, he said. Bagsby taught him a lot about building partnerships.

“It was not enough to have an idea or plan. You also have to bring the community along with you and make sure your idea comported with their idea,” he said. “She was a great mentor and friend.”

Bob Ray Sanders, a former Star-Telegram editor and columnist, called Bagsby “an incredible force in the community” whose work to break down race and gender bias paved the way for others like Brooks.

“The word ‘trailblazer’ has become trite now, but the truth is she was a real trailblazer,” Sanders said. “She didn’t toot her own horn. She just went out and did — often with someone else in mind.”

Though Bagsby broke down barriers and was known as a strong leader, Sanders said she was always modest and quick to give credit and encouragement to others.

“Dionne was always a lady, in my mind,” he said. “No matter what, she always exuded the qualities of a lady — kind and considerate.”

Bagsby’s love for education and passion for the community was well-known.

Christene Moss, a member of the Fort Worth school board, said Bagsby was a strong leader in Fort Worth’s African-American community and one admired by many young women.

“She was just really outstanding,” Moss said.

She was also a strong advocate for the underprivileged, particularly for women and children, her family said in a statement detailing her life and accomplishments.

Bagsby was “deeply committed to improving the lives of those in need,” her family wrote in the statement. For example, she was one of the early pioneer educators who worked for a peaceful integration of the Fort Worth Independent School District, the family said.

Gwendolyn Morrison, a trustee on the Tarrant County College District board, described Bagsby as ”a sterling role model of community activism.” She said Bagsby helped her get acclimated in the Fort Worth community years ago when she moved to the area and that her welcoming nature was shared with many young women.

“There are so many things that she did,” Morrison said. “The greatest thing that she did was encourage other women to develop themselves and to take their rightful place in the educational, civic and cultural life of the community.”

Bagsby was a supporter in organizing the Greater Fort Worth Area Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club. In 1975, when the organization received its national charter from the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Bagsby opened her home in southeast Fort Worth for the first general membership meeting.

Morrison said Bagsby was selected by the club as the 2019 “We Speak Your Name” honoree.

When she retired from the commissioners court in 2005, the Texas Legislature honored her with a resolution marking her “distinguished 16-year tenure that has been characterized by integrity and excellence.”

In October, The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce awarded Bagsby the Legacy Award for “deep commitment and dedication to Fort Worth.” The sub-courthouse in southwest Tarraant County is named after Bagsby.

Diane Smith and Kaley Johnson contributed to this report.
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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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