Finding Elisabeth Gilman
Having spent the better part of half a century serving under six Johns Hopkins University presidents, alumnus Ross Jones ’53 might have thought he had no surprises left when it came to the university, its people, and its history.
Then, about 10 years ago, he came across the papers of Elisabeth Gilman (1867-1950), deep in the university archives. “Miss Lizzie,” as she affectionately came to be known, was the youngest daughter of founding university President Daniel Coit Gilman.
“I was hooked,” says Jones, former vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees. “Here was this woman who was many decades ahead of her time.”
As a young woman in the late 1800s, Elisabeth accompanied Daniel Coit Gilman on trips up and down the Nile River, rode donkeys across the desert in Egypt, and visited the West End docks in London to talk with prominent advocates for the working poor. Educated mostly at home, she met and learned from a steady stream of leading intellectuals who regularly visited her father and the university.
“No government official, no leader of industry or financial enterprise, escaped her persistent message that it was their duty to raise the quality of life for working men and women, children, minorities, and the aged,” says Jones.
Jones has spent nearly a decade researching the life of the relatively unknown Socialist leader—studying her diaries, newspaper clippings, letters, and more—and has produced a book-length manuscript about her life and work that he hopes to publish soon.
In tackling the writing project, Jones called on the reporting skills he honed early in his career. After graduating from Johns Hopkins with a major in history, he served for three years in the Army and then headed to Columbia University for a master’s degree in journalism. He worked for the Associated Press, then in public affairs for Columbia University, before he got a call from Johns Hopkins President Milton S. Eisenhower in 1961.
Jones became Eisenhower’s assistant and secretary to the board of trustees. Then, upon Eisenhower’s retirement in 1967, he became vice president and secretary, handling a broad portfolio of administrative responsibilities until his own retirement in 1998.
Jones continued working part time at Johns Hopkins for several years after that, doing some fundraising and researching Hopkins history to write articles for the university’s Gazette. It was during that time that archivist James Stimpert rolled out a cart loaded with boxes of Elisabeth Gilman’s papers—and Jones was quickly smitten.
He says that the more he learned about Gilman and her advocacy, the more he became convinced that her work is especially relevant now. “It’s really remarkable how so many of the issues she advocated for so passionately in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s are issues we’re still grappling with in 2017,” he says. He adds ruefully, “She might be a little discouraged if she came back today.”
Among other projects, “Miss Lizzie” created a “night bureau” in the winter for Baltimore’s homeless, launched the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and led a national effort to raise funds for the destitute families of the 1922 West Virginia miners’ strike.
Indeed, Gilman’s home on Park Avenue “was the center of liberal and progressive activity in Baltimore,” Jones says. “Progressive leaders from around the country would come to meet with her and talk about their programs and projects.”
Many of those visitors came under the umbrella of the “Open Forum,” a weekly Sunday lecture series, which began just before World War I and lasted until the early days of World War II, and drew more than 1,000 people each week.
“Elisabeth was the driving force for the Open Forum, particularly in the latter years,” says Jones.
At a testimonial dinner held in honor of Elisabeth Gilman several years before her death in 1950, at age 82, Sidney Hollander, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins, summarized her far-reaching vision and impact, Jones writes in his book.
Hollander called Gilman “one of America’s grandest institutions,” and noted, “She has stirred Baltimore as Einstein stirred the universe.”