Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Ella Weldin Johnson, 1868-1959
By Deanna Lewis, Student, Newark Charter High School, Newark, Delaware
Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
Suffragist, Clubwoman, Educator, Local Historian
Ella Weldin Johnson, founding president (in 1919) of the Newport (Delaware) Women's Club and treasurer of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association, was an important contributor to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in Delaware. From a young age, Johnson faced inequality because she was female. As a well-connected resident of Newport, a small town about five miles west of Wilmington, she used her experiences to better understand her town and the people within it. Johnson's involvement in several different movements and clubs throughout Delaware resulted in her building relationships with individuals from all walks of life. For instance, Johnson was an avid supporter of the temperance and suffrage movements, as well as an advocate for children's education and recreation. She undertook these commitments in conjunction with her neighbor Martha Churchman Cranston, founding president of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association and a leader in the Delaware Woman's Christian Temperance Union. These friendships allowed Johnson to acquire more supporters for women's suffrage. Johnson thought that if she could bring her community together to understand and support her thoughts regarding the Nineteenth Amendment, Delaware would be persuaded to ratify. These components of Ella W. Johnson's biography reflect the trials and tribulations of many suffragists. Her biography tells the story of a woman who was adamant for change in her community and who persuaded others to speak out about local injustices rather than remain quiet.
Ella W. Johnson was born in Newport, New Castle County, Delaware, on October 4, 1868. She was one of the three children born to Samuel Marshall and Harriett Weldin Johnson, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). For her first three years of life, she lived on a farm near Newport. Johnson eventually moved with her family to 202 East Market Street where she would reside until her death. Beginning in 1903, she regularly hosted meetings of the Newport Equal Suffrage Club at her home. Tax-paying single women in Newport (there were thirteen in all) could vote in school elections; in 1909, Johnson became the first female school commissioner for New Castle County. She served four terms before retiring from the position in 1921. Johnson won because of her ideals about schools. As school commissioner, Johnson worked to improve funding for rural schools, change the taxation system used to fund schools, and increase the age of compulsory schooling for children.
As a member of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association (DESA), an affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Ella Johnson served as treasurer, beginning in 1915, and then second vice-president in 1918-1919. In 1915, the Equal Suffrage Association lobbied the Delaware General Assembly, unsuccessfully, for an amendment to the state constitution enfranchising women. Ella Johnson believed that the best way to end gender inequality was by fighting for a woman's right to vote through the legal system. When the Nineteenth Amendment was sent to the states for ratification, she and others hoped that Delaware would be one of the thirty-six states needed to ratify. The DESA petitioned the pro-suffrage governor to call a special session of the legislature in spring, 1920, in order to debate ratification He did so, but in spite of suffragists' efforts, Delaware's legislature did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until three years after it became part of the U.S. Constitution.
During World War I, Johnson helped sell Liberty bonds and assisted the Red Cross. After World War I, in 1919, Johnson helped establish the Newport Women's Club and devoted many hours to its sponsorship of programs related to suffrage and to children's education and recreation. In 1922, the Newport Women's Club donated and sponsored land so that a playground could be built for the children.
Throughout the years, Ella Johnson was a devoted member of the Newport community, giving particular attention to local children and schools. (Like the rest of Delaware's schools, Newport schools remained legally segregated until the 1950s.) She created the Home and School Association for the Newport School (1915), an organization that provided children with necessities that they might be lacking at home, such as food and clothes. It evolved into a Parent-Teacher Association. For sixteen years, Johnson was a member of the Newport School Board. She was active in efforts to end child labor and to promote temperance.
In 1922, with the endorsement of her local Republican club, Johnson became Newport's first postmistress, a paid political appointment she held for twelve years. Throughout her life, she would continue to advocate for causes and fund projects. Towards the end, Johnson was writing a book entitled, “The Story of Newport,” a history of the town. Although she died without finishing it, her sister Mary Johnson took it upon herself to complete the book and distribute it to the public so she could continue to live on through her work as well as in her community. The book was published in 1963. Ella Weldin Johnson died on March 6, 1959, at the age of ninety.
Details from Ella W. Johnson's life can be found by local newspapers digitized on Newspapers.com. This site offers helpful information concerning her activities in education in the city of Newport, and the Women's Suffrage Movement. Her work in appealing to the Delaware state legislature about women's rights appeared in “Women Will Ask Free Suffrage of Legislature,” Wilmington Morning News, November 21, 1912, pp. 1, 10. For her opinions on the National Woman's Party, see “State Suffragists Against Pickets,” Wilmington Morning News, November 23, 1917, p.7. For her work on women receiving the right to vote, see “Equal Suffrage Board Meeting,” Wilmington Morning News, September 30, 1919, p. 7. On her election as the first woman school commissioner for New Castle County, see “Woman Named for School Board,” Wilmington Morning News, June 28, 1909, p. 1. For her work in the education system, see “Condition of the Rural Schools,” Wilmington Morning News, February 22, 1915, p. 5. On her work with child labor, see “Miss Ella Johnson Child Labor Agent,” Wilmington Morning News, May 7, 1915, p. 6. On some of her work in the Newport community, see “Playground for Newport Folk,” Wilmington Evening Journal, April 29, 1922, p. 8. For her work on the “The Story of Newport” see, “Book on Newport,” Wilmington Morning News, December 31, 1963, p. 4.
Ella W. Johnson's obituary provided useful information: “Miss Ella W. Johnson, 90, Newport Civic Leader, Dies,” Journal-Every Evening, March 7, 1959, pp. 1, 4. Martha Cranston's obituary also contributed helpful information: “Mrs. John A. Cranston Expires At Age Of 80,” The News Journal, June 24, 1927, p. 13. Ella Weldin Johnson's book, Story of Newport, a Square Little Town in the State of Delaware (Wilmington: Paragon Press, 1963) includes a number of details about her family and her career. Her will can be found at the office of the New Castle County Recorder of Wills, File #39765.