Dynamic Mothers & Daughters: Elizabeth Fisher Johnson and Lillian Wyckoff Johnson

We’d like to bring you the story of a dynamic mother-daughter duo in honor of Mother’s Day this year.
Public service ran in the veins of Elizabeth Fisher Johnson and her daughter Lillian Wyckoff Johnson. Lizzie Fisher was born in 1835. Her father, G.W. Fisher, had been a member of the state legislature before the war. He believed in education for women, and she received a good education for the day. She married J. Cummings Johnson, who started the first cottonseed oil business in Memphis. He became worried about the survivors of yellow fever and started the Hope Night School for boys orphaned by the epidemic of 1878.
Elizabeth founded the Women’s Christian Association to help the poor with jobs, food, clothing, and money. In 1876, the WCA opened a Mission Home for fallen women. Lizzie Johnson has a key role in the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was elected the first state president of the WCTU in 1882. She died only six months later at the age of forty-seven.
The Johnsons were progressive in many ways. Their home on the outskirts of Memphis had the first built-in bathtub in town!
Lillian Wyckoff Johnson was a second-generation activist. Lillian entered the recently opened Wellesley College at age fifteen, then received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and studied abroad in Leipzig and at the Sorbonne, before becoming one of the first women to get a doctorate from Cornell. She taught at the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis and at Vassar College. She was the president of the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, from 1905 to 1908. She returned to Memphis and taught at what was to become Central High School. She was active in the movement to get the Normal School, now the University of Memphis, located here.
She became interested in the improvement of rural life and went to Rome to study at the International Institute of Agriculture, where she also came under the influence of educator Maria Montessori. Lillian Johnson lectured for the Department of Agriculture, then set out to practice what she preached. She settled at Summerfield near Monteagle in Grundy County in 1915. She organized a county fair, got a high school with home economics courses established, and campaigned for good roads and a county health unit. In 1932, she turned her Summerfield home over to a group of enthusiasts led by Myles Horton, who established the controversial Highlander Folk School. Every summer, industrial workers from across the country gathered there to discuss trade union problems.
In 1937, Lillian Johnson undertook the rehabilitation of the abandoned mining town of Ravenscroft. She became interested in her mother’s cause of temperance when moonshiners fired buckshot at her house. She became state secretary of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Even in her retirement to Bradenton, Florida, she was still improving the world, organizing a center for Black youths. She died at age ninety-two in 1956.
Both women were posthumously awarded the Heritage Award from the Women of Achievement this year. Both women are buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Happy Mother’s Day to all!