Elsie Walker (Johns)

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Elsie Walker (Johns), 1889-1975

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University, and Anne M. Boylan, Emerita, University of Delaware

Elsie Walker was born in Delaware in 1889, the daughter of Nelson and Clara (Shockley) Walker; she was the second of their four surviving children. Elsie and her siblings grew up in the Ninth Ward on Wilmington's Northeast side, attending the nearby Clara Mendenhall primary school (School No. 26) through grade eight. Elsie spent at least one year (1903-1904) at Howard High School, the only four-year high school for Black students in the entire state, and in 1929 graduated from the Howard night school's dressmaking course. Like her mother and sister Eva (or Evva), Elsie contributed to the family economy by doing housework in private families. Her father was successively a brick-maker, a laborer, and a school janitor who eventually acquired a settled position as a fireman for the Wilmington Board of Education. A 1931 obituary recorded that he had worked at the George Gray School for thirty-five years. Nelson Walker was also active in Wilmington's Republican Party politics. By 1920, the family had acquired property, especially a house at 1506 North Heald Street that remained their home for decades.

In June 1925, at Ezion Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Elsie Walker married Ira Washington Johns, a Delaware native whom the census recorded as a janitor (1930) and then a porter (1940) at an automobile dealership. The couple resided with Elsie's family on Heald Street. Although they had no children and Elsie was recorded without an occupation in either 1930 or 1940, she was undoubtedly involved in helping to raise two young relatives – Granville Boyer (1921-1992) and Marjorie Boyer (1925-1960) – who had joined the household by 1930.

In February 1921, Elsie was one of six Delaware voting rights supporters, led by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who travelled to Washington, D.C. in order to join a delegation of 60 Black suffragists protesting violations of the recently ratified 19th Amendment. Southern states were systematically denying Black women's voting rights. The delegation, headed by the NAACP field secretary, Addie W. Hunton, met with Alice Paul, President of the National Woman's Party (NWP) on the eve of the party's national convention. Their purpose was to press the NWP to pass a resolution calling on Congress to investigate the failures of Southern states to enforce the 19th Amendment for Black women. Paul made no such commitment and the convention as a whole refused to endorse the call.

Earlier, in October, 1920, Elsie Walker had helped organize Black women in Wilmington's Ninth Ward to support the Republican Party in the upcoming elections. At a meeting held at the family home, Elsie was chosen president of the Ninth Ward Colored Women's Club and agreed to serve as a district leader to organize and mobilize voters. After the 1921 protest, she devoted time to volunteer labor, raising funds for a community center, presiding over an American Legion women's auxiliary, and supporting the Colored Adult Opportunity School at Howard High School, a program of adult education designed "to secure the fundamentals of education," including reading and writing, for those who lacked them.

Elsie and Ira Johns continued to live at 1506 North Heald Street after Nelson Walker's death in 1931 and Clara Walker's in 1943. The 1950 census found Elsie and Ira at the family home, along with Elsie's brother Harry, a public school fireman like his father, and her sister Evva, who was working as a housekeeper for a private family. Also in the home were Marjorie Boyer (now Marjorie Hill) and her six-year-old daughter Jacqueline. In 1950, Elsie worked as a servant in a private family, and Ira as a handyman at an auto dealership. By then, Ira was a member of the Monday Club, a storied social, political, and cultural gathering spot for Wilmington's Black men, many of whom held positions in service industries. (A historic marker now identifies the group's clubhouse at 917 French Street.) When Marjorie Boyer Hill died in 1960, Elsie and Ira informally adopted her daughter Jacqueline.

Elsie Walker Johns passed away in 1975 and was buried in New Castle, DE, in the Garden of Peace section of Gracelawn Memorial Park. When Ira Johns died in 1979, in his will he appointed Jacqueline Hill (Cunningham) as executor and bequeathed his entire estate to her. Ira was also buried at Gracelawn. Elsie's sister Evva lived on until 1991; at her death, she designated Jacqueline Hill Cunningham (now McDonald), as executor of her will and inheritor of the family home at 1506 North Heald Street. Evva, too, was buried at Gracelawn Memorial Park.


Federal Manuscript Censuses, Wilmington, DE, 1900-1950. Entries for Elsie Walker and Elsie Johns. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

Marriage record, Elsie Walker and Ira Washington Johns, 1925 and death records for Ira Washington Johns (1979) and Elsie Walker Johns (1975) in Ancestry Library Edition.

"Gifts for Miss Kruse" [documenting Elsie Walker's attendance at Howard High School], Wilmington Morning News, February 23, 1904, p. 6. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

"Ninth Ward Women Organize," Wilmington Evening Journal, October 15, 1920, p. 15. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

"Colored Women for New Charter," Wilmington Morning News, 9 Feb. 1921, p. 11.

Jeannette Carter, "Washington Letter," New York Age, 19 Feb. 1921, p. 2. Accessed via newspapers.com.

"Colored Women Threaten to Picket Convention," The Negro Star (Wichita, KS), 25 Feb. 1921, p. 1. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

"Scott Legion Post Installs Officers," Wilmington Morning News, January 24, 1922, p. 2. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

"32 Students Get Certificates at Wilmington Opportunity School, Philadelphia Tribune, March 29, 1928, p. 3. Accessed online via ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Black Newspapers.

"Howard Night School," Wilmington Evening Journal, March 28, 1929, p. 5. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

Obituary for Nelson R. Walker, "Nelson R. Walker, Negro, Dies," Wilmington Every Evening, January 5, 1931, p. 14. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

Obituary for Marjorie Boyer Hill, Wilmington Morning News, December 20, 1960, p. 46. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

"Miss Jacqueline Hill to Wed Herbert A. Cunningham," Wilmington Evening Journal, May 19, 1964, p. 39. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

Obituary for Elsie W. Johns, Wilmington Morning News, March 5, 1975, p. 8. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

Obituary for Ira Washington Johns, "Ira Johns, Club's Oldest Member, Dies," Wilmington Morning News, October 4, 1979, p. 47. Accessed online via newspapers.com.

The following probate records, available at the New Castle County Register of Wills office, 800 N. French Street, Wilmington, Delaware, provided additional details on Elsie Walker Johns's family:

Nelson Walker, file # 17676

Clara S. Walker, file # 29446

Elsie Johns, file # 67411

Ira Johns, file # 79865

Evva Walker, file # 100705

Relevant secondary works:

Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1984).

Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

Nikki Brown, Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Anne M. Boylan, Votes for Delaware Women (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2021).

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