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Estellana Johnson

Estellana Spencer (née Johnson) (1844-1879)

Estellana Johnson was born in 1844 to Abraham Johnson, a driver, and Catherine Johnson, a homemaker. As the youngest of five children, Johnson’s siblings were Rachel Johnson (b. 1837), Henrietta Johnson (b. 1838), Emily Johnson (b. 1840), and Edwin Johnson (b. 1842). Johnson entered the Institute for Colored Youth in 1854 where she was an excellent student. In 1859, Johnson received a prize for “diligence” in her studies. She also received a $10 prize for Greek and Latin in 1861, which The Christian Recorder described as the “highest prize for the classics among the girls.” On May 3, 1861, Johnson was one of five to graduate from the Institute. Following graduation, Johnson helped to form and later became the Vice President of the Alumni Association of the Institute. As a part of her duties as Vice President, Johnson read a poem at the Institute’s 1862 graduation. Johnson was known within the African-American community as an accomplished poet. For instance, her poem “To the Memory of Mary E. Wheeler” appeared in The Christian Recorder,

Far from the depths of hearts made meek,
There comes a stifled cry,
And sorrows blanch the tear-stained cheek,
But why? O tell us why?
A tender maid we loved so true,
Close round our hearts entwined,
Soared yonder through the ether blue,
A truer friend to find.
Dear Mary, true, we might have thought,
To us thou wast not given;
Thy gentle friendship we'd ne'er bought,
'Twas loaned to us from heaven.
Thy form though hidden from our sight,
'Neath Lebanon's green sod,
Prevented not thy spirit's flight,
Back to its Giver, God.
No! never more thy smiling face
These mortal eyes shall see,
through redeeming grace,
We shall immortal be.
In memory's ball, like music sweet,
Thy voice re-echoes still!
The well-known tripping of thy feet,
Its spacious length doth fill.
Dear Mary, thy mementoes now
Are all we have of thine;
While o'er these we devoutly bow,
Thou dost in glory shine.
Oh! from thy happy home above
Look down, and check the sigh,
And say to those who shared thy love,-
There only dust doth be.
For in that narrow bed of clay
Thy soul is not confined.
The bends grew less and less each day,-
Through suffering 'twas refined.
Ah! when we sit and think of thee,
It will not cause us pain;
For we do know that it must be,
We all shall meet again.

By 1865, Johnson had moved to Wilmington, Delaware where she taught African-American children. She was also active in raising funds for Sarah "Sallie" L. Daffin’s (Class of 1860) Freedmen schools. In fact, The Christian Recorder notes that Johnson’s students raised $1.21 for Freedmen education.

On December 26, 1867, Johnson married Samuel Spencer and shortly after gave birth to two children, Edward Spencer (b. 1869) and Bertha Spencer (b. 1870). Johnson died on September 1, 1879 at age 36 and was buried at Olive Cemetery in Philadelphia.


1850 Federal Census, Census Place: Philadelphia Middle Ward, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Roll: M432_814, Page: 21B, Image: 48, Ancestry.com; Objects of the Institute for Colored Youth, with a list of the officers and students, and the annual report of the Board of Managers, for the year 1859, Philadelphia, 1859; Objects of the Institute for Colored Youth, with a list of the officers and students, and the annual report of the Board of Managers, for the year 1861, Philadelphia, 1861; “The Examination of the Pupils of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth,” The Christian Recorder, May  11, 1861; “Notice,” The Christian Recorder, September 28, 1861; “The Institute for Colored Youth,” The Christian Recorder, May 6, 1862; “To the Memory of Mary E. Wheeler By Estellena Johnson,” The Christian Recorder, April 11, 1863; “Acknowledgement,” The Christian Recorder, December 9, 1865; “Married,” The Christian Recorder, February 1, 1868; 1870 Federal Census, Census Place: Wilmington Division 25, New Castle, Delaware, Roll: M593_121,Page: 246A, Image: 504, Family History Library Film: 545620, Ancestry.com; “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803–1915,” Ancestry.com.


Images: "To the Memory of Mary E. Wheeler" by Estellena Johnson

Sources: The Christian Recorder, April 11, 1863

Born: c. 1844 - Philadelphia, PA

Died: September 4, 1879 - Philadelphia, PA

Graduated: 1861

School Teacher


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