Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Gertrude Johnson Harrington (1874-1948)
MSA SC 3520-2287
First Lady of Maryland, 1916-1920

[Picture of Gertrude Johnson Harrington]
Gertrude Johnson Harrington by Gregory Stapko
1972, Maryland Commission on Artistic Property
Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1170

On July 12, 1874, Gertrude Johnson was born to parents Mariah Woodland and William T. Johnson. The Johnson family lived on Golden Hill in Dorchester County, Maryland. As a youth, Gertrude attended the Cambridge Female Seminary from which she graduated with honors. After successfully completing school, she accepted a position as a teacher at Town Point. Through this appointment, she met Emerson Columbus Harrington, then the principal of Cambridge High School. The couple married on June 27, 1893 at Grace Methodist Church.  Gertrude and Emerson subsequently had three children; Emerson Jr., William, and Mary.3

Emerson, son of John E. and Elizabeth Thompson Harrington, studied law in addition to teaching school. After being admitted to the bar in 1898, he left his position as a principal to assume public office.  In 1899 he was elected state attorney for Dorchester County. In the following years, he served as Insurance Commissioner, Comptroller of the Treasury, and finally state chief executive in 1916. Thus, Harrington was Maryland's governor during U.S. participation in World War I.4

Serving as the first family during wartime was difficult, but the Harringtons filled the role with grace and sensitivity and emerged as role models for all Marylanders during that time. Mrs. Harrington especially took her position as First Lady quite seriously and incorporated her interests into a homefront program enacted from Government House. For example, she was a staunch advocate of the Young Women's Christian Association. On December 6, 1917, she held a meeting at Government House which turned into a recruiting seminar for women interested in war work. Mrs. Harrington invited guest speakers to comment on the Y.W.C.A.-supported war programs such as the hostess house program.  Hostess houses were set up in mobilization camps--where soldiers were preparing to leave for the battlefields of France--and the women volunteers in them offered to sew on patches or mend the soldiers' clothing.  A proponent of this program, Mrs. Harrington herself made weekly trips to Camp Meade to serve food in the soldiers' cafeteria.5

In an interview for the press, Mrs. Harrington extolled the work of the Y.W.C.A. and offered her staunch support for its activities. She especially commended the efforts of the organization to provide safe meeting places and wholesome recreation for women who had moved away from home in order to fill positions in the workforce vacated by men mobilizing for war.  She stated,

                When we realize that the war has meant that suddenly 
                hundreds of thousands of women who have never before 
                left the shelter of their own homes find themselves in 
                utterly changed surroundings, very often without a guide 
                or anchor, we must acknowledge that the woman problem is 
                an exceedingly difficult one, and it is very comforting to 
                know that an organization such as the Young Women's Christian
                Association is prepared to meet it.6
In addition to her patronage of the Y.W.C.A., Mrs. Harrington was involved with the War Camp Community Service, the Baby Saving Campaign, the Red Cross, and the Near East Relief Fund.7  Also, Mrs. Harrington volunteered three nights a week in an Annapolis soldiers' canteen as a server.8

In addition to her volunteer work, Mrs. Harrington used her position as First Lady to aid American servicemen. For instance, she opened Government House to soldiers and sailors for receptions, balls, and fundraisers.9  She hosted meetings of the War Work Campaign of which she was named the honorary President, and she staged concerts in order to raise money for the various organizations she supported. She also planned dances to benefit the War Camp Community Service Committee of which she was the chairperson.10

In addition to her busy schedule of war work activities, Mrs. Harrington continued to participate in other community organizations.  She active in the Red Cross, was a member of the Christ Protestant Episcopal Church, president of the Altar Guild, a patron of the Dorchester County Tuberculosis Association, president of the Cambridge Women's Club, and an honorary member of the Eastern Shore Society.11

While First Lady, in addition to fulfilling her role as Official Hostess for any guests or dignitaries visiting Maryland, Mrs. Harrington staged a number of events designed to increase appreciation for the local arts. For example, she hosted an informal reception at the Maryland Institute of Art and Design to honor Dutch artist William Wirtz, who at the time was a resident of Baltimore.12  She and the governor also hosted several "Theater Box Parties" to encourage interest in local stage productions and to help raise money for community organizations such as the Baltimore chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.13

Mrs. Harrington also made room in her busy schedule to enjoy time with her family.   The local newspaper reported in August 1918 that she accompanied her children and husband on a fishing trip to Hackett's Point.14  On holidays, Mrs. Harrington usually traveled home to Cambridge to celebrate with her entire family, but whenever the Harringtons chose to remain in Annapolis they strictly limited their celebrations to family only.15  The Harringtons also made it a point to enjoy amusements offered in Annapolis such as attending the hops at St. John's College as a family.16  In her spare time, Mrs. Harrington engaged in one of her favorite hobbies---knitting.17

After Governor Harrington's term as governor ended in 1920, the couple returned to live in Cambridge where they remained until Emerson died on December 15, 1945.18  Mrs. Harrington continued to reside at their home until her death on April 8, 1948. She was buried at the Christ Church Cemetery on April 10, 1948.19

Notes on sources

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