case western reserve university



Oldest graduate of Case’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences reflects on her life and career in social work

Ella Mae Johnson has her singing voice to thank for her career as a social worker.

At 101, Johnson is the oldest living graduate of Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. But she probably wouldn’t have gotten to Case except for her singing ability.

Johnson’s story begins while she was a high school student in her home city of Dallas. A school administrator, an alumna of Fisk University, heard her sing and was so taken by Johnson’s talent that she persuaded her glee club to contribute enough for a year’s scholarship at Fisk. Johnson enrolled in 1921.

Teaching Original Career Path

While at Fisk Johnson discovered she enjoyed studying French and thought about teaching following graduation. “At that time teaching was one of the few career paths open to a black woman,” she explains. “But I didn’t think there was any place that would hire a black woman to teach French.”

As a backup, she took several courses in sociology and during her senior year lived and worked at a local settlement house. That experience sparked her interest in social work.

One of the highlights of her time at Fisk, she says, was hearing the writer and early civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois, who delivered the commencement speech for the class of 1924, of which his daughter was a member. Unlike the typical commencement speech, Dubois, himself a Fisk graduate, used the occasion to criticize the university for what he called its excessive pursuit of money.

Dubois’s speech led to a student strike, which extended into the next academic year. Johnson joined the strike by refusing to attend classes in the first quarter of her senior year, which meant she did not graduate until the following August. The speaker at her commencement was a faculty member, Professor C.V. Roman. “He told us, ‘don’t think you know everything, but you ought to know where to go to learn what you don’t know.’ That has always stayed with me.”

Johnson’s first job following graduation was as a social worker at a church in Raleigh, N.C. While there she heard from a friend who had previously graduated from Fisk and who had enrolled in what was then Western Reserve University’s School of Applied Social Sciences. The friend persuaded Johnson to apply, and she began classes in the fall of 1926.

Pioneering the Fisk-Mandel School Relationship

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Johnson was one of the pioneers of what has developed into a long relationship between Fisk and the Mandel School, as Fisk graduates have regularly attended the Mandel School in the ensuing years. The two schools recently formalized their relationship in an agreement allowing qualified students to obtain a bachelor’s degree at Fisk and a master’s degree from the Mandel School in five years.

Johnson’s memory of the names of individual professors and courses at SASS is vague, but she recalls that her classes provided good training for field work. “The courses prepared me for the sorts of problems that clients would present—finances, unemployment, domestic problems, issues with children, things like that.”

Outside of the classroom life was rockier. The university did not provide housing for black women, so she had to find lodgings with a private family. And while rarely encountering outright bigotry, “a lot of the businesses and institutions had ways of letting you know you were not welcome,” she recalls. Nor was she able to strike up close friendships with faculty and other SASS students because of the absence of contact outside the classroom.

One of the places where she did find happiness and acceptance was at the Mount Zion Congregational Church U.C.C., which she joined in1926 and where she remains a member.

Helping the Stokes Family

Following graduation, Johnson took a position with the Cuyahoga County welfare department. While there one of her client families consisted of a widow named Louise Stokes, struggling to raise her young sons Carl and Louis. The mother worked as a domestic.

“I always admired her.” Johnson recalls. “She took good care of those boys. I wished I’d been able to do more for her but I was bound by the rules.” Carl and Louis grew up to become, respectively, mayor of Cleveland and a 15-term U.S. Congressman. Louis Stokes is now a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Mandel School.

Beginning in 1941, she worked for Cuyahoga County’s Aid to Dependent Children, later transferring to the Child Welfare Board. She took an early retirement in 1961. In the meantime, she raised two sons on her own after their father, Elmer Cheeks, died in 1941. She remarried in 1957. She is also a grandmother and great-grandmother.

A Busy Life After Retirement

Being retired has not meant being inactive. Johnson has traveled to 30 countries on five continents and been active at Mt. Zion and the U.C.C. on the local, regional, state and national levels. She volunteered in community and neighborhood programs and her sorority while her health permitted.

Now wheelchair bound, Johnson lives in assisted living at Judson Park, a retirement community near the Case campus. Her cozy room is adorned with mementos of her career, photographs from her travels, and decorative needlework she has stitched. She spends her days visiting with other residents, or reading or doing needlework in her room. She recently read the Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, the so-called 9/11 commission report. “I don’t feel like I have the time to do everything I want to do in a day,” she laughs.

Looking back over her life and social work career, Johnson says she is very satisfied. “Even though I’d gotten into the field sort of accidentally, I know it was the right field for me. I knew there were needs people had, and in many cases I was able to help them improve their situations in life. I’ve never regretted it.”


About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work.