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Johnson, Virginia Knight (1843–1934)

Elizabeth York Enstam Biography Entry

Virginia K. Johnson, religious and social worker, daughter of William F. and Eliza (Woodruff) Knight, was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1843 and reared in Pike County, Missouri. During the Civil War she was arrested and imprisoned as a Confederate sympathizer. In 1872 she married William Hudson Johnson. The couple moved to Brownwood, Texas, where he became a county judge. In 1880 they moved to Dallas, where William Johnson opened a law practice and later became city attorney. After his death in 1890 Virginia became active in literary and music clubs, as well as in United Charities fund drives. She was a member of the First Methodist Church and president of the Central Circle of the missionary society, the King's Daughters.

In 1893 a plea for help from a well-known Dallas prostitute inspired Virginia Johnson to lead the King's Daughters in opening a home called Sheltering Arms, a haven for women under the age of twenty-two and in danger of resorting to prostitution for lack of other means of support. In 1896 she founded and edited the King's Messenger, a quarterly magazine for donors, friends, and supporters of rescue work. By its second issue 5,000 copies were printed, and advertisements were included from a wide variety of businesses. The periodical continued publication until 1934.

In 1897 Sheltering Arms expanded to house sixty women and was renamed the Ann Browder Cunningham Home, after the donor of the homesite. Virginia Johnson was superintendent. The home offered shelter to unwed mothers as well as to prostitutes who wished to change their lives, but the institution became inadequate within a decade and closed in 1911. By that year Virginia Johnson had raised the money to purchase an eighteen-acre campus in Oak Cliff on which to build a $75,000, three-story brick structure, the Virginia K. Johnson Home and Training School. With accommodations for 200 young women, the school offered a general education, religious and Bible instruction, courses in basic homemaking, and vocational training in dressmaking, millinery, and nursing. After 1915 the school's curriculum included typing, bookkeeping, and stenography. The Johnson Home was soon accepting applicants from unwed mothers and prostitutes from the entire South. It continued to operate until 1941, when new Texas laws forbade the requirement that residents stay for at least two years. Virginia Johnson helped to raise money for Virginia K. Johnson Hall at Southern Methodist University, and she successfully solicited funds and the land for Smith-Carroll Hall, the Methodist dormitory at the Texas College for Women (now Texas Woman's University) in Denton. She died in Dallas on July 20, 1934.

Dallas Morning News, July 21, 1934. Elizabeth York Enstam, "Virginia K. Johnson: A Second Chance for the Wayward," Heritage News, Summer 1985. History of Woman's Work in the North Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Dallas: History Committee of the Woman's Missionary Society, 1929). Olin W. Nail, ed., History of Texas Methodism, 1900–1960 (Austin, 1961).


  • Religion
  • Methodist
  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Social Workers

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Elizabeth York Enstam, “Johnson, Virginia Knight,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed February 25, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: