Eliza Eubanks Peterson Johnson, known nationally as Eliza E. Peterson during her work as a state and national leader in the woman’s temperance movement, a suffragist, and a missionary worker, was born Eliza O. Eubanks (in some records her maiden name is spelled Eubank) to Julia and Rufus Eubanks on December 12, 1874, in Waskom, Harrison County, Texas. By 1880 her family had moved to Caddo Parish, Louisiana, where her father was a farmer. According to her later speeches, her father was also an alcoholic. Sometime before 1898 she married and took the name Eliza E. Peterson. No records, however, are known to exist regarding her first husband or their marriage. In the 1890s, prior to her work in the temperance movement, Peterson served as a music teacher in Texarkana. Always an education advocate, she wrote to the National Association of Colored Women’s national publication National Notes in 1899 to seek help in finding a black kindergarten teacher for her local community.
Throughout the Progressive era, Peterson devoted herself to social reform. In 1898 Peterson was elected state president of the segregated African American division of the Texas Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), often referred to as the “Thurman Union,” named after its first African American national superintendent, Lucy Thurman. An effective and efficient organizer, Peterson traveled throughout Texas and established local and youth WCTU groups in an effort decrease alcohol consumption and, as the Dallas Morning News characterized the prohibition movement, “free Texas of the saloon.” Peterson spoke most often with small women’s group meetings held in women’s homes and church groups but also addressed larger interracial crowds of women and sometimes men, who described her as having “good sense, undaunted enthusiasm and burning zeal.” Under her leadership, the Thurman WCTU of Texas began publishing a monthly newspaper called the Sentinel on April 12, 1907, to promote the cause. Two years later Peterson became the second national superintendent of the national Colored Division of the WCTU after Thurman stepped down. As part of her new role, she travelled extensively across the country to promote prohibition and organized new chapters and state divisions.
In March 1913 Peterson travelled to Auburn, New York, to ask for Harriet Tubman’s help. What the national temperance organizer wanted from the iconic civil rights and abolitionist leader is unclear, and no records have been found, but Tubman expressed sorrow that she could not help Peterson. On March 10, 1913, Tubman asked that her friends come to her bedside, and Peterson being present, was invited to join the group. Then, in a final service directed by Tubman herself, the group sang songs, received the sacrament, and Tubman laid a blessing on those present. Harriet Tubman then slipped into unconsciousness and passed away that evening. Thus, Peterson had been in attendance at Harriet Tubman’s bedside when she died, which was reported in numerous newspapers at the time and often discussed by historians in descriptions of Tubman’s death.
During the 1910s Peterson continued to live in Texarkana and work for the WCTU as its national superintendent, lecturer, and organizer. According to the Indianapolis Recorder in January 1914, Peterson helped launch a campaign for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol by 1920 and promoted woman suffrage as a means to reach this goal. The national WCTU organization had advocated woman suffrage since the 1880s. Peterson continued this work and entertained crowds with her oratory skills until the prohibition movement reached success with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1918. Peterson held an honorary bachelor of science in education degree, conferred upon her during a 1917 commencement address at Roger Williams University because of her support for the student body.
On August 7, 1919, in Texarkana, Miller County, Arkansas, Eliza Peterson married Christopher “Rev. C. F.” Johnson of Mobile, Alabama. Johnson was an insurance broker who Booker T. Washington described in his book, The Story of the Negro (1909), as “one of the wealthiest colored men in the state of Alabama.” The couple was listed as residents of Mobile in the 1920 census. Their mothers, Maria Johnson and Julia Eubanks, and a niece and nephew lived with them. According to the 1940 census, Eliza P. Johnson was a widow living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her “son” John Johnson, who was likely the nephew listed as living with the couple in 1920. Little is known about her life after her marriage to Johnson except for her being listed as a “missionary worker” on her death certificate. Eliza Eubanks Peterson Johnson died on May 31, 1966, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was buried in Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Del County, Pennsylvania.