Ellen L. Johns, a seasoned Baltimore public schools principal who was an active member of Union Memorial United Methodist Church for more than 50 years, died June 20 from a heart condition at Arlington West Nursing Home. She was 96.
“She was a giant in so many ways,” said her grandson, Emory J. Mills, who lives in West Baltimore’s Bridgeview-Greenlawn neighborhood. “She was a very strong woman who was generous to so many people. She was uncompromisingly committed to excellence. She inspired many people, my grandfather, mother and me, to become educators.”
Mr. Mills said his grandmother was “always honest.”
“She was not the kind of person who believed in fake stuff or secret agendas,” he said. “She was very forthright, and you never had to wonder where you stood with her from one second to the next.”
The Rev. Dr. Jason Jordan-Griffin has been pastor of Union Memorial United Methodist Church since 2016, where Mrs. Johns was a member since 1961.
“Mrs. Johns was a very well-educated woman who had been a schoolteacher and an administrator who brought much of that to the life of our church. What I loved about her was the way she had a deep connection between her faith and community,” said the Rev. Dr. Jordan-Griffin, a Glen Burnie resident.
“She urged people to vote and contact their legislators. Mrs. Johns had been a block captain and would call about trash, or a downed tree or the needs of a fellow senior,” he said. “She’d come back to church and would say, ‘We have to get onboard with this.' She called us to a plan of accountability, that faith is an active word and not just on Sunday.”
The former Ellen Louise Briscoe Camper, daughter of Dr. John E.T. Camper, a physician, and his wife, Louise Gertrude Nixon Camper, an Afro American newspaper reporter who was later night school principal at Frederick Douglass High School, was born in Baltimore and raised in the 600 block of N. Carey St.
She was a 1941 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1945 from what was then Coppin State Teachers College on North Avenue.
From the mid-1930s until 1957, when the program ended, Black teachers wishing to pursue graduate studies were excluded from attending the University of Maryland, College Park because of segregation. Instead, on weekends they boarded, trains, planes or buses for such institutions as Columbia University, Oberlin College, the University of Chicago or New York University (where Mrs. Johns earned a master’s degree in education in 1953), where Maryland taxpayers paid for out-of-state tuition.
In 1946, she married Glendi Everett Johns, a bricklayer, who after earning a bachelor‘s degree taught bricklaying at Howard County High School. He died in 2008.
Mrs. Johns began her teaching career in 1945 at J.H. Lockerman Elementary School and later joined the faculty of Benjamin Banneker Elementary School. She was named assistant principal at Smallwood Elementary School and then at Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School.
She was principal of Sarah F. Roach Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore for a number of years.
In a 1980 Baltimore Sun series on city public schools, “Schools that Work,” her school, Sarah F. Roach Elementary School, was selected because of her innovative approach to supporting new, inexperienced teachers. She “does not weed out teachers at all, but works hard at trying to keep the teachers she has.” reported The Sun.
Mrs. Johns pointed out how she worked with one such teacher.
“She was extremely weak. She had been rated satisfactory by her previous principal because he didn’t want a fight with the union,” Mrs. Johns told the newspaper. “She called me at 20 of 6 one morning, crying, saying she could not face teaching that day.”
Mrs. Johns, who worked with the teacher, also assigned her a senior teacher and brought in a regional specialist and psychologist.
“She is still here,” Mrs. Johns told The Sun. “She’s not perfect, but none of us is. She has come a long way; she is able to teach in a satisfactory manner.”
The teacher was later given a rating of “good,” with Mrs. Johns telling the newspaper, “we were all very proud.”
Another innovation that she instilled with new faculty was assigning each a “faculty buddy.” She would even relocate classes so a new teacher would be next door to a veteran educator. “Just peek into Ms. Dixon’s room and see what she does,” she advised them.
Even though she retired in 1980, Mrs. Johns, who lived in the 2300 block of Mosher St. for more than 60 years, was kept busy with her church work and neighborhood activism.
“She formed the 2300 Block Mosher Street Protective Association in the 1990s,” her grandson said, and also served as the neighborhood improvement association’s president.
“And at church, she founded Seniors On the Go!” the Rev. Dr. Jordan-Griffin said. “A lot of times, seniors become pew sitters, but she saw there was a need for them to actively share their wisdom and experiences with the younger generation and to close that gap. And because of what she had done, we had seniors who were in their 70s, 80s and 90s in leadership roles at our church, and she was still teaching an adult Sunday school class when she was in her 90s.”
She was a member of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, which recognized achievements and milestones such as marriages, births or deaths of loved ones. She also sang with the Sanctuary Choir and Mass Choir, was a member of the Daughters of Judah, and business manager and actress with the Union Players.
She was director of the church’s Anna Y. Smith Scholarship Fund, organized a voter registration drive, and was a past president of United Methodist Women.
“Mrs. Johns was our congregation’s lay member who actively went every year to the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church,” the Rev. Dr. Jordan-Griffin said.
She and her husband, who were known for financial generosity to the church, donated the flaming cross on the Warwick Avenue side of the church, which is located on Harlem Avenue.
“She didn’t suffer fools gladly but had a great sense of humor. She was a fun-loving person,” the Rev. Dr. Jordan-Griffin said.
Some of Mrs. Johns’ favorite journeys as a world traveler were to China. Egypt, England, Israel, Canada and many Caribbean Islands as well as the continental U.S.
“Ellen enjoyed life, loved people, and Coca-Cola, and was grateful for God’s love,” a niece, Joyce Ada Aileen Camper of Hyattsville, wrote in a biographical profile of Mrs. Johns. “He truly loved her!”
Services were held Wednesday at the William C. Brown Funeral Home.
In addition to her niece and grandson, Mrs. Johns is survived by a brother, Nixon Alfred Camper Sr. of Catonsville; a sister, Elizabeth Irving Jones of West Baltimore; and many nieces and nephews. Her daughter and only child, Roderica Lynne Johns, died in 2013.