On June 11, 1945, Nellie Stone Johnson earned a seat on the Minneapolis library board, becoming the first-ever African-American elected to a citywide post in Minneapolis. However, this political milestone was only one of many for Johnson during her lifetime.
Born Nellie Saunders Allen in 1905, Johnson grew up the oldest of seven on family farms in Dakota County and Pine County. In both communities, she and her family were some of the only African-Americans around, but she remembered experiencing little discrimination.
“In our small towns, it was hard to be exclusionary to one family,” she noted.
Instead, her father, William, became incredibly involved in the community, including serving on the school board, organizing fellow farmers into dairy cooperatives and rallying for the Nonpartisan League, a political organization created to protect farming interests. He was also appointed to the Rural Electrification Association for Pine County, a government program to install electricity in isolated areas.
“In our Pine County kitchen, there was always a coffee pot on the stove. I heard a lot there through my father talking to everyone in the community at our kitchen table over a cup of coffee,” Johnson remembered in her 2001 autobiography, Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist.
In 1922, Johnson moved to Minneapolis to work and finish high school through the University of Minnesota.
At the university, she met socialist union organizer Swan Assarson and began to get involved in labor and union issues.
While she was working at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, a prestigious social club, the staff received a pay cut in 1934; the club claimed it couldn’t afford to pay its workers. In response, the employees, including Johnson, unionized, creating Local #665 of the Hotel Employees Union.
Johnson went on to become one of the first women to serve on her local union’s contract negotiating committee, and she worked on issues such as ending segregated eating and locker room facilities for Minneapolis Athletic Club employees. By 1936, she was the first female vice president of her local union and sat on the statewide hotel and restaurant workers’ council.
She also became increasingly involved in local and statewide politics, befriending people like Hubert Humphrey, whom she advised on union and civil rights issues. By 1944, Humphrey and Johnson both served on a committee that oversaw the merger of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties, creating the DFL.
With Humphrey’s encouragement and support from the DFL, Johnson soon ran for a seat on the Minneapolis library board. The Minneapolis Tribune described her philosophy: “To her, books and education are the greatest forces in bringing about an understanding of all human relationships and in providing equality of opportunity.”
Despite some pushback, such as the city’s head librarian writing a letter questioning a black woman’s ability to handle money, Johnson won her seat by 20,000 votes. The day after the election, she had a meeting to discuss the lack of black employees working at the library.
After serving on the library board for six years, Johnson decided she was better at putting people into political office than working in one, so she never held a political job again, despite efforts from friends such as former Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser.
But she stayed very involved in politics, including successfully lobbying for Minnesota to pass the Fair Housing Act in the 1960s, which outlawed racial discrimination in housing around the state.
Johnson also saved money to open her own tailor shop, Nellie’s Alterations on Nicollet Avenue in 1963, bringing in work from local department stores like Dayton’s.
In 1979 at age 74, Johnson managed the city council campaign of Van White and successfully saw him elected as the first African-American on the Minneapolis City Council.
White asked her to become his chief aide, but she turned him down. In the 1980s, she served on the Minnesota State University Board and as a Minnesota member of the Democratic National Committee.
Johnson finally retired from Nellie’s Alterations at age 91 and passed away at age 96 in April 2002. Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Minneapolis is named for her, and since 1989, the Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Program has worked to offer college scholarships to minority union members and their families in Minnesota.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.