Mary J. Johnson Woodlen


Biographical Database of African American Suffragists

Biography of Mary J. Johnson Woodlen, 1870-1933


Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

One of the founders of the Wilmington, Delaware, Equal Suffrage Study Club, Mary J. Johnson Woodlen was born in Virginia in 1870, the daughter of James and Edmonia (Garnet) Johnson. By 1900, she had moved to Wilmington and married John H. Woodlen, Sr., a widower with two children. When they married, John Woodlen, who was originally from Kent County, Maryland, had a well-established contracting and hauling business and was active in Republican Party politics and the Colored Men’s Fort-Nightly Club, which agitated on behalf of African American rights. Mary Woodlen contributed to the family business while also volunteering her services to the Layton Home for Aged Colored Persons. While presiding over the home’s Senior Board during the 1910s, she worked with women who were also active suffragists, including Blanche Williams Stubbs and a wealthy white patron, Florence Bayard Hilles, who served on the Home’s “Junior Board.”

In 1913, she joined Blanche Stubbs and Dr. J. Bacon Stubbs, Alice M. Dunbar (later Dunbar-Nelson), and other African American Wilmingtonians in securing an act of incorporation for a new social service agency: the Thomas Garrett Settlement. For four decades, the settlement offered a variety of programs, including a kindergarten, art and music classes, athletic activities, a health clinic, and meeting spaces. When these co-workers and others, including Edwina B. Kruse, principal of Wilmington’s Howard School, organized an NAACP branch in 1914, Mary Woodlen became the chapter vice-president. In 1916, she supported the formation of the Delaware Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, with Blanche Stubbs as president; at the group’s annual meeting in 1918, she was chosen chaplain, a position she held for several years. And when the Federation sponsored and then secured state funding for an Industrial School for Colored Girls, Mary J. Woodlen joined the new school’s board of directors, along with Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Her stepson John H. Woodlen, Jr., took a role in the men’s advisory committee.

These commitments provide the context for Mary Woodlen’s suffrage activism. She was present at the first meeting of the Equal Suffrage Study Club on March 19, 1914, held at the home of Emma Gibson Sykes, a teacher in the evening program at the Howard School. A number of the other women present were individuals with whom she was connected, or would be connected, in civic, educational, and political undertakings. They included Alice Dunbar, chosen as the group’s president; Emma Sykes, vice-president; Bessie Dorrell, secretary; Fannie Hamilton, treasurer; and Blanche Stubbs, along with Howard School teachers Alice Gertrude Baldwin, Nellie B. Nicholson, Caroline B. Williams, and Helen Anderson. They formed networks of activism that included the school (the only educational facility offering combined primary, grammar, and high school teaching to the city’s African American children), the Layton and Sarah Ann White homes, the Garrett Settlement, the NAACP, and local African American women’s clubs. In May, 1914, the Equal Suffrage Study Club marched, in a separate contingent, in Wilmington’s first suffrage parade. Its members participated actively in the effort to gain legislative support for ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. During a special session of the Delaware legislature in the spring of 1920, the state capitol, Dover, became the locus of a struggle between suffragists and anti-suffragists and drew national attention. Delaware did not ratify. Among the issues that doomed the ratification effort was the claim that, once enfranchised, African American women would uniformly support the Republican Party, thereby boosting its power to raise taxes in order to improve schooling in the state. (Delaware law segregated its schools and provided pittances to fund black schools; it did not disfranchise African American men, however.)

Once the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect, Mary J. Woodlen took a key role in the Wilmington Colored Women’s Republican Club (also termed the League of Colored Republican Women), which vowed “100 per cent registration of colored women of the city” and conducted energetic registration and get-out-the-vote efforts for the November 1920 elections. She also took part in a protest over the disfranchisement of African American women in states of the former Confederacy. In February, 1921, she was part of a Delaware delegation to attend the unveiling in Washington, D.C., by the National Woman’s Party (NWP), of a statue featuring the suffragists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Appalled that the NWP, which was holding its annual convention, refused to defend African American women’s voting rights, the NAACP’s Addie Hunton had called upon local affiliates to send representatives. Alice Dunbar-Nelson responded with alacrity and formed a Delaware group of six women, including Mary Woodlen and Blanche Stubbs. Once in Washington, they joined a large contingent, led by Mary Church Terrell, in confronting NWP president Alice Paul over the group’s unwillingness “to go on record as disapproving the disregard of the 19th Amendment.” The results were highly unsatisfactory as Paul adamantly insisted that disfranchisement was a racial issue, not a women’s issue.

Mary J. Woodlen continued to devote a great deal of time to the Republican Party in Delaware. In Wilmington’s heavily African American Twelfth Ward, she led registration and voting drives and pressed for the election of a local African American physician, Conwell Banton, to the city’s Board of Education. In 1924, she ran for a delegate slot to the Republican State Convention, speaking at rallies in both Wilmington and Middletown about “the large number of women who are taking advantage of their suffrage.” As an elected committeewoman from her ward, she was a visible presence in both the 1924 and 1928 presidential campaigns.

In those years, too, she was much in demand for spiritual guidance, particularly at local Methodist churches. Wilmington newspapers contained regular notices of her upcoming sermons and addresses, especially at women’s day services. After years of membership in the Haven Methodist Episcopal Church, her denominational home became the Eighth Street Baptist Church. She remained involved in the board of the Garrett Settlement House and the Industrial School for Colored Girls. After her husband’s death in 1915 she continued to live with her stepson John in the family home at 206 North Scott Street, in Wilmington’s Hilltop neighborhood. In 1920, Etta Alpha Roach, a music teacher at Howard High School and the ward of the school’s principal, Edwina B. Kruse, joined the household when she and John married.

Mary J. Johnson Woodlen died of diabetes and a cerebral hemorrhage on February 8, 1933. After a funeral at the Eighth Street Baptist Church, she was buried at Wilmington’s historic Mt. Olive cemetery.


Biographical details on Mary Johnson Woodlen and her family can be traced through decennial censuses, genealogical records, and city directories available through and A death notice appeared in the Wilmington Journal-Every Evening on February 9, 1933, p. 25. An obituary for her husband appeared in the Wilmington Evening Journal, August 5, 1915, p. 5.

For her activism in the NAACP, see NAACP Papers, microfilm edition, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939; Part B: The Northeast, Reel #1. Note that in some records her name is erroneously given as “Mrs. W.J. Woodlen.” Sources on her role in the 1921 protest over African American women’s disfranchisement include NAACP Papers, Part 4, Group 1, Series C, Reel 2; Wilmington Evening Journal, February 9, 1921, pp. 1, 3; and New York Age, February 19, 1921, p. 2. For historical context on the protest see Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter (New York: W. Morrow, 1984), pp. 166-70; and Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 67-70.

Newspaper articles detailing her activist commitments include: “Tag Day for Home,” Wilmington Evening Journal, June 13, 1913, p. 10; “Settlement Dedication,” ibid., January 10, 1914, p. 3; “Colored Women Want the Ballot, ibid., March 21, 1914, p. 12; “Women’s Club Election,” ibid., July 5, 1918, p. 19; 3 Days Session of Women’s Clubs,” ibid., September 16, 1919, p. 3; “Ask Funds for Industrial Home,” ibid., March 13, 1920, p. 7; “Colored Clubs in Two-Day Session,” ibid., October 6, 1920, p. 8; “City Charter Gains Support,” ibid., February 9, 1921, pp. 1, 3; “Explains Clash over Dr. Banton,” ibid., April 14, 1921, p. 10; “Colored Women Voters Organize,” ibid., May 18, 1921, p. 5; TITLE, ibid. April 12, 1924, p. 18; “Republicans of 12th Ward Rally,” ibid., October 11, 1924, p. 7; “Colored Women Aid Campaign,” ibid., October 27, 1924, p. 2; “Colored Women’s G.O.P. Club,” Wilmington Every Evening, October 18, 1928, p. 4; “Dedicate New Lodge Building,” Wilmington Evening Journal, April 15, 1932.

On her religious leadership, see “Union A.M.E. Church,” Wilmington Evening Journal, February 25, 1922, p. 6; “Women’s Day,” ibid., June 28, 1924, p. 4; “St. Daniel’s AME Zion Church,” ibid., December 19, 1925, p. 5; “UAME Sunday School,” ibid, November 5, 1927; “Mrs. Mary Woodlen at St. Peter’s M.E.,” ibid., February 4, 1928, p. 4; “Epworth League,” ibid., February 9, 1929, p. 5.

Significant secondary sources include: Annette Woolard-Provine, Integrating Delaware: The Reddings of Wilmington (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003); Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Delaware: A Jewel of Inconsistencies” The Messenger, 6 (August 1924): 244-46 and Pauline A. Young, “The Negro in Delaware: Past and Present,” in Delaware: A History of the First State, ed. H. Clay Reed and Marjorie Bjornson Reed (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947), II, 581-606.


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