May 15, 2008
Ella Mae Johnson
Fisk University, B.A. '25
School of Applied Social Sciences, '28
Birthplace: Dallas, Texas
Current home: Cleveland, Ohio
Good Samaritans gave Ella Mae Johnson the love and guidance she needed early in life. Their nurturing, in part, led to her career as a social worker. Now 102, Mrs. Johnson is one of the oldest living graduates of the School of Applied Social Sciences, now the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve.
Orphaned as a child, she was taken in and reared by a neighborhood couple. They were of modest means and had little schooling, yet they recognized that a college education was crucial to improving her life.
While she was a high school student in Dallas, Texas, a school administrator—an alumna of Fisk University—persuaded the Fisk Glee Club to contribute enough for a year's scholarship at Fisk. Mrs. Johnson enrolled in 1921.
At Fisk, she discovered she enjoyed studying French and considered teaching it after graduation. Teaching was one of the few professions open to African American women, she recalls. "But I didn't think there was any place that would hire a black woman to teach French."
She took several courses in sociology as a backup, and, in her senior year, lived and worked in the Bethlehem Center, a settlement house. The experience was so positive that she decided she preferred social work to teaching and set out to learn the necessary skills to be successful.
Among the highlights of her time at Fisk was hearing alumnus W.E.B. DuBois, a noted writer and inf luential civil rights and social justice advocate, speak during a commencement address in 1924. His speech, which criticized the Fisk administration for being too preoccupied with money, led to a student strike that extended into the following academic year. Mrs. Johnson participated in the strike by refusing to attend classes the first quarter of her senior year. The result meant she did not graduate until the following August.
Her first job after graduating was as a social worker for a church in Raleigh, North Carolina. She met a friend, also a Fisk alumna, who recommended the School of Applied Social Sciences. She came to Cleveland in fall 1926.
She cites the social work school's overall coursework as good training for fieldwork. Courses prepared students for issues they would encounter with clients, such as finances, unemployment, domestic problems, child rearing. The university did not provide housing for people of color, so Mrs. Johnson lived with a private family. She also joined the Mount Zion Congregational Church, United Church of Christ (U.C.C.), whose members served as a surrogate family and where she remains a member today.
After earning her master's degree, she began work with the Cuyahoga County Department of Welfare. One of her clients was a widow named Louise Stokes, who was struggling to raise two sons. The boys, Louis and Carl, grew up to become noted and respected politicians: Carl became mayor of Cleveland; and Louis became a 15-term U.S. congressman representing Ohio's 21st district. He is now a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Mandel School. Mrs. Johnson also worked for the county's Aid to Dependent Children and the Child Welfare Board. She took an early retirement in 1961.
She has two sons whom she raised on her own after the death of her first husband, Elmer Cheeks, in 1941. She remarried in 1957. She is a grandmother and great-grandmother.
Once retired, Mrs. Johnson hit the road. She has visited 30 countries on five continents. She has volunteered with her church and has served on all levels of the board of the U.C.C.
Although she did not know it at the time, Mrs. Johnson is one of the pioneers of what has become a long relationship between the two universities, now officially called the Case- Fisk Partnership.
"I believe I chose my career wisely for in settings not formally determined to be social work, much of my interest and activity throughout my life has centered around helping others financially and otherwise. My many tours have enabled and encouraged me to promote relief of the suffering." A recent example of this is rather than give gifts for her 100th birthday in January 2004, she asked family, friends, and well-wishers to support AIDS victims in Kenya. Her request generated $3,000. "My efforts were not to pay back, but to continue being a Good Samaritan."