Craig-Jones, Ellen Walker 1906–2000
Ellen Walker Craig-Jones 1906–2000
Though her name does not ring loud in the minds of American people the way those of other African-American politicians do, Ellen Walker Craig-Jones quietly made history back in 1971 when she became the first black female to be elected mayor of an American municipality. The place was Urbancrest, Ohio. Classified as a village because of a population below 1,000, Urbancrest was a mostly black, mainly poor, working-class suburb nine miles outside Ohio’s state capitol, Columbus. Before Craig-Jones came along, the town lacked basic facilities like water and sewage systems. Housing was dismal, development non-existent. Craig-Jones decided to change all that. “She was determined to make a difference regardless of what anyone thought,” Betty Williams, Craig-Jones’s great-niece told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). In the near century that she lived in Urbancrest, she did just that.
Born Dollie Ellen Walker on June 5, 1906, in Truro Township, Ohio, Craig-Jones was just four months old when her family moved to Urbancrest. Her mother, Weltha Belle Lee Walker, had been a school teacher before taking on the full-time job of raising Craig-Jones and her four sisters and three brothers. Her father, Charles Oscar Walker, supported the family by working long hours on area farmland as a sharecropper. Craig-Jones attended local Urbancrest schools as well as those in nearby Columbus. Though she only got as far as high school, Williams told CBB that Craig-Jones, “always said she got her education from the Master’s of Masters of the University of Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding.” It was an education that both stemmed from and spurred on her lifelong commitment to community activism.
In 1926, just 20 years old, Craig-Jones “marched off to the Franklin County Courthouse to talk to the commissioners about getting water for the village,” Williams told CBB. “Her concern was for the betterment of the community.” Over the next 30 years Craig-Jones never lost sight of that goal. Though she held a job as a domestic worker, she was constantly striving to improve the quality of life in Urbancrest. “In 1960 she went with the then-Mayor William Johnson to Chicago to talk to federal officers about getting government help for the community sewer system,” Williams told CBB. “In 1970 the city got both sewer and water systems.”
Craig-Jones also worked to get others involved in community affairs by founding several civic organizations including the Urbancrest Volunteer Civic Improvement Association and the Urbancrest Community Recreation Club. She also founded and led the Council for Village Youth which focused on issues of housing and the establishment of a social center. In addition, she founded and served as first president of the local credit union. She was also president of the Urbancrest Housing Board.
At a Glance…
Born Dollie Ellen Walker on June 5, 1906, in Truro Township, OH; died on January 23, 2000, in Urbancrest, OH; married James H. Craig, 1923; married William Jones; children: James P. Craig, Estherleen Craig Moore. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Village of Urbancrest, OH, city council member, 1950s-1970s, mayor, 1972-75.
Selected memberships: African Council of Elders; Black Women Leadership Council; Mid Ohio Region Planning Commission; board chairman, Manpower Advising Council; Ohio Black Political Assembly.
Selected awards: State of Ohio, Ellen Walker Craig Day, 1974; City of Columbus, OH, Mayor’s Medal, 1978; YWCA, Women of Achievement, 1993; Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, 1994; Ohio Heritage Marker, 2003.
Eventually activism gave way to local politics and, according to Williams, Craig-Jones became “the first woman elected to the Urbancrest Council.” During 12 years as a council member, she worked tirelessly on community and civic issues ranging from public utilities to youth programs to housing. One area of particular concern for her was the elderly. Nearing retirement age herself, she was very aware of the problems facing older community members including access to city services, fixed incomes, and affordable housing. Working on behalf of the town’s seniors helped Craig-Jones deal with her own aging. “Her motto was ‘old may get me, but I’ll never get old,’” Williams told CBB.
In 1971 Craig-Jones’s became the first African-American female elected to the office of mayor in the United States when she won the mayor’s race in Urbancrest. This feat secured her a place in the history books and laid the groundwork for hundreds of black female mayors who would come after her. However, it was not accomplished without difficulty. “Her first hurdle was being elected by 11 votes,” Williams told CBB. “The then mayor demanded a recount. The recount cost $10.00 at that time.” The results were confirmed. Craig-Jones was mayor and more committed than ever to helping Urbancrest. “She said, ‘I will see that our community gets some of the things available,’” Williams told CBB.
Sworn into office in 1972, Craig-Jones was very active during her three years as mayor. “[She] oversaw modernization programs, extensive street repair projects, and began a $3 million housing project,” according to the Ohio Bicentennial Web site. Craig-Jones conceived of the housing project and oversaw all aspects of the initial planning from securing funding to soliciting contractors. The project, named Urban Hollow, broke ground in February of 1976. Williams recalled that Craig-Jones was pressured by the council to hire black firms for this and other improvements in the community. However she wouldn’t give into political gameplaying, saying defiantly, “I will use any source that will get the job done regardless.” She was also not intimidated by bigger political forces and she successfully lobbied both the county treasurer and an Ohio state representative to help secure funding for a community center in Urbancrest. Once built, it did double duty as the seat of Urbancrest’s local government.
Craig-Jones did not confine her activism to the community. She and first husband James H. Craig, married in 1923, were also committed to personal acts of charity. According to author Tonya Bolden who profiled Craig-Jones in 1996’s The Book of African-American Women, the Craigs kept what they called a “God’s Drawer” in their home. Each pay day they would put a little money in a drawer in the china cabinet and when tragedy hit a local family, they would open it up and help out. This generosity stemmed naturally from Craig-Jones religious beliefs. A devout Baptist, she was an active member of Urbancrest’s Union Baptist Church, leading the Men’s Chorus and volunteering as a Sunday school teacher.
In 1975 Craig-Jones left the mayor’s office and “became a homemaker because Uncle James was ill,” Williams told CBB. She continued to care for her husband until his death in the early 1980s. By that time the couple had been married 59 years and had raised two children, James Jr. and Estherleen. Well into her seventies, Craig-Jones later married William Jones. They were married for seven years before he also died.
Craig-Jones achievements both in and out of the mayor’s office brought an onslaught of public recognition. “She received 80 to 100 significant awards and honors,” Williams told CBB. In 1974 the governor of Ohio declared a statewide Ellen Walker Craig Day. That same year the Black Political Assembly gave her its Humanitarian Award. The city of Columbus awarded her its Mayor’s Medal in 1978. In 1993 the YWCA named her a Women of Achievement, and in 1994 she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. Because of her extensive experience in community activism and politics, Craig-Jones was also sought after by various educational organizations including the Joint Center for Political Studies, the African Heritage Studies Association, and the African Council of Elders.
On January 23, 2000, Craig-Jones died in her home in Urbancrest. She was 93 years old. Over 70 of those years had been devoted to improving life in Urbancrest. Everything from the water system to the street lamps, the community center to the village hall, came into existence in large part because she existed. She saw basic necessities lacking in her community and instead of just shrugging her shoulders and going about her life, she did something about it. “I believe opposition was the driving force that helped her pursue her goals in life,” Williams told CBB. “If she believed it could happen she would do anything in her power to make it happen.” Urbancrest is forever indebted to her for that belief, and in 2003 an Ohio Heritage Marker was erected in her honor. It stands where she once governed—in the Urbancrest Administration Building—reminding all Urbancrest residents that sometimes it takes just one woman to raise a village.
Bolden, Tonya, The Book of African-American Women: 150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters, Adams Media Corporation, 1996, pp. 293-94.
“Community Activist-Ellen Walker Craig-Jones,” Ohio Bicentennial, www.ohio200.org/programs/advcouncils/ohwomen/community.asp (February 6, 2004).
“Obituaries for Jan. 26, 2000,” The Columbus Dispatch, www.dispatch.com/news/newsfeaOO/jan00/obits0126.html (February 6, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Betty Williams, great-niece of Craig-Jones, on February 27, 2004.
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