Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Sallie Topkis Ginns, 1880-1976

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By Janet Lindenmuth, Reference/Electronic Services Librarian, Delaware Law School, Widener University.

Edited by Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware

Sallie Topkis Ginns was born on May 9, 1880, into a Russian Jewish immigrant family. A pogrom in 1881 caused the Topkis family to leave Odessa, Russia, to come to the United States in 1882, when Sallie was about two years old. They lived briefly in Chester, Pennsylvania and then New Castle, Delaware, where Sallie's father, Jacob Henry Topkis worked as a peddler, and then opened a second-hand shop. Eventually they moved to Wilmington, where they operated Topkis Dry Goods at 4th and Market Streets. The store was managed by Sallie's mother Rosa Avrach Topkis.

In 1899 Sallie Topkis married another Russian Jewish immigrant, James Ginns, who operated a fruit store at 3rd and King Streets in Wilmington. They moved to Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where they owned a department store and Sallie gave birth to two daughters, Reba (later Schwartz) and Clara Belle (later Lefton).

Two of Sallie's brothers, Charles and William Topkis, went into the movie theater business, opening the Majestic Theater on Market Street in Wilmington in 1911. James Ginns became their partner and the Ginns family moved back to Wilmington in 1912 so that James could manage the theater. The Wilmington Amusement Company, as the Topkis/Ginns movie theater business became known, eventually operated several theaters in Wilmington including the Queen, the Arcadia, and the Garrick, as well as theaters in Chester, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey.

Sallie Ginns became involved in the suffrage movement around the time of her move back to Wilmington. According to a later interview, she initially became interested in prohibition, which then led her to the suffrage movement. In March 1915, Ginns was one of a group of women who traveled to Dover by train to advocate for an ultimately unsuccessful bill to amend the Delaware constitution granting women the right to vote. In May 1915, she accepted an appointment as chair of the Congressional Union's state nominating committee for its first slate of officers, and in March 1916 she attended the Congressional Union's state-wide conference at the Hotel Du Pont. She was elected treasurer of the state organization in 1916. On May 16, 1916 she was among the Delaware suffragists who attended a Congressional Union meeting in Washington, D.C., which was followed by a march and protest at the Capitol. The Congressional Union became the National Woman’s Party in March 1917.

She went to Washington D.C. again in September 1917, to attend a dinner given for suffrage White House pickets who had just been released from prison, and to visit Delaware's congressional representative to ask him to intervene in the case of Annie Arniel, a Delaware picket who had just been sentenced to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. She went again in December to attend the National Woman's Party annual meeting.

One of her favorite anecdotes, which was reported in a profile of her in the Wilmington News Journal and again in her obituary, recounted an event that occurred during one of these trips to Washington D.C. Her husband James, worried by news stories about the arrest of suffrage pickets, made Sallie promise not to picket the White House. She gave her promise, but still volunteered to protest at the Capitol as her husband hadn't said anything about picketing anywhere but the White House.

Once the 19th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification in June, 1919, Delaware suffragists began a campaign to pressure the pro-suffrage governor, John G. Townsend, Jr., to call a special session of the General Assembly to consider the Amendment. (Delaware's legislature convened in spring in odd-numbered years.) In that effort, Sallie T. Ginns was a member of the ratification committee of the state National Woman's Party. An August rally in Wilmington was held at the Majestic Theater, one of the theaters owned by the Topkis/Ginns family, possibly arranged by Sallie Ginns. At the event, in a series of performances termed the "Suffragists' Canterbury Tales," Annie Arniel enacted "the taxpayers' tale" and Alice Gertrude Baldwin "the colored teacher's tale." Sallie Ginns does not seem to have gone to Dover to lobby with the rest of the group, perhaps because, according to society announcements in the Wilmington Evening Journal, she was in Atlantic City for the summer with her daughter, who was expecting a baby.

After the ratification of the 19th amendment Ginns continued her interest in politics. In 1921 she ran unsuccessfully as part of a slate of progressive candidates for the Wilmington Board of Education. She was active in Republican politics all her life, and was a member of the Delaware Republican platform committee in 1972, at the age of 91.

Throughout her life, Sallie Ginns was involved in Jewish causes in Delaware, including war relief for Jewish refugees during the First World War. At the same time as her suffrage work she became president of the Delaware chapter of the Council of Jewish Women and continued as president for many years. She was an active member of her synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth. She devoted time and energy to other concerns as well. At the age of 60, she took up painting, studying under the noted Delaware artist, Edward Loper, and at age 95, she received a 55-year service award from the Delaware chapter of the Red Cross.

The Ginns family lived for many years at 1905 Baynard Boulevard in Wilmington. By the time of James Ginns's death in 1959, they had moved to the Mayfair Apartments at 1300 N. Harrison Street. Sallie Topkis Ginns died aged 96, at the Kutz Home in Wilmington, Delaware on September 24, 1976.

Sources:

Background on the Topkis/Ginns family and Wilmington's Jewish immigrant community can be found in Toni Young, Becoming American Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington, Delaware's First Jewish Community, 1970-1924 (University of Delaware Press, 1999).

Interview with Sallie Topkis Ginns, Robert H. Richards, Jr., Delaware Oral History Collection, University of Delaware, http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/20107

Sallie Topkis Ginns and her family can be found in the U.S. census 1900 and 1910 in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, 1920 to 1940, Wilmington Delaware. Topkis/Ginns Marriage record: Ancestry.com, Delaware Marriage Records, 1744-1912.

Information on Sallie T. Ginns's suffrage activities can be found in the National Woman's Party publication The Suffragist (later Equal Rights). For details on her Delaware suffrage activism, see local Wilmington newspapers, including "Mrs. Hilles Heads State Suffragists," The Evening Journal, May 15, 1915, p. 7; "Suffrage Envoys on Way to Capital," The Evening Journal, December 4, 1915, p. 7; "Congressional Union: Meeting of Claymont Branch this Afternoon," The Morning News, May 11, 1916, p. 7; "Want Suffrage Amendment Passed," Wilmington Morning News, July 10, 1916, p. 7; "Mrs. Hilles Heads Woman's Party," Every Evening, April 14, 1917, p. 3; "Suffragists Protest Jail Sentence for Friend," The Evening Journal, Sept. 13, 1917, p. 1; and "Governor to Get Memorial Friday," Every Evening, July 29, 1919.

Her work with the Council of Jewish Women: "Mrs. James Ginns Honored," Every Evening, March 16, 1920, p. 1

Wilmington Board of Education election: "Citizens' Committee Names 6 Candidates for Education Board," Wilmington Morning News, May 3, 1921, p. 1

The Wilmington Evening Journal published an interview with Sallie T. Ginns in 1972: "Advice to Republicans, Ask Women What Needs to Be Done," April 13, 1972, p.33.

Her obituary ran in the The News Journal, Sept. 25, 1976, p. 30.

The best source on the woman suffrage campaign in Delaware is Carol E. Hoffecker, "Delaware's Woman Suffrage Campaign," Delaware History, 20:3 (Spring-Summer, 1983): 149-67.

For general context on the National Woman's Party, see Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920); Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of the Woman's Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1921); and Christine Lunardini, From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928 (New York: New York University Press, 1986).

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