Celebrating Black Trailblazers in Minnesota’s History
In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting five notable black Minnesotans. These leaders were and continue to be strong members of the community. Their work is an example of the history that we turn to as inspiration this month.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Nellie (Griswold) Francis exemplified what it meant to be leader for civil rights in Minnesota. Francis was the only African-American student to graduate from Saint Paul High School in 1891 and was one of eight students selected to give a graduation speech. In her speech, Francis described how the “race problem” was one that only existed in the minds of white Americans, as they saw fellow Black citizens as dangerous, rather than hard-working, peaceful or patriotic — let alone equal. She maintained this energy in her work throughout the years.
Photo Courtesy of mnopedia.org
Advocate for Women’s Suffrage
She ran the press office of National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, was president of Everywoman’s Suffrage Club in Minnesota and served as a delegate in state suffrage conferences. In 1920, Nellie led the campaign for anti-lynching legislation in response to the infamous lynchings of three black men in Duluth. She wrote the anti-lynching bill that was signed into law with near-unanimous support. Despite the widespread approval of the legislation, racism still defined daily life for Nellie and William. In 1924, they bought a house in the all-white Cretin neighborhood of St. Paul. In response, neighbors organized the Cretin Improvement Association, held noisy demonstrations, burned a cross on the lawn and offered the couple a thousand dollars not to move in. Nellie and William moved into the home anyway.
Nellie Francis died in 1969, but her legacy as an activist lives on in Minnesota. She is one of twenty-four women honored for their efforts to secure voting rights for women in the Woman Suffrage Memorial Garden on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol.
Lena Smith became the first black woman to practice law in Minnesota in 1921. She was a fierce advocate of civil rights, and served as the first female president of the Minneapolis NAACP. When other branches of the national organization devoted their resources to dismantling the Jim Crow laws in the South, Lena Smith led efforts to dismantle Northern-style segregation.
Photo Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Protecting a Family’s Right to Live in a White Neighborhood
Arthur and Edith Lee may have been Smith’s most notable clients. When they bought a home in South Minneapolis, thousands of white neighbors showed up on the lawn for days to harass the family. The mob threw stones, killed the family dog and threatened to burn them out. The Lee’s first attorney advised them to wait out the riots, go on vacation and then sell their home back to the neighborhood association. Smith, on the other hand, encouraged them to stay resilient. She used her influence to get an armed guard to protect their home. While others in the black community thought the Lees shouldn’t have moved there in the first place, Lena Smith stayed focused on the underlying civil rights issue. Smith successfully protected the Lees' right to stay in their house.
While participating in theatre in college, Lou Bellamy recognized that many of the roles he played did not adequately portray the experience of black people, largely because they were written from a white perspective. As a result, he set out to change the way the back narrative is presented in theatre. In 1976, he founded Penumbra Theatre as a way to raise the consciousness of a nation by showing the fullness of black life and challenging the way we see African Americans portrayed in media. Throughout his 39-year tenure at Penumbra, he established it as one of the preeminent Black Theatres in the United States through productions such as Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity and August Wilson’s Jitney and Fences.
Alan Page attended the University of Notre Dame where he received a B.A in political science in 1967. After graduating, Page was first round draft choice for the Minnesota Vikings where he played from 1967-1978. During his football career he played in 218 consecutive games. In 1971, he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, and in 1988, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Minnesota Supreme Court
As he was playing for the Vikings, Page attended the University of Minnesota Law School where he earned his Juris Doctor in 1978. He started his legal career as an attorney for a private firm and later transitioned to the office of the Minnesota Attorney General. While there, he set his eyes one the Minnesota Supreme Court where he sought election to in 1992 and won; making him the first African-American on the court. When he was re-elected to the court in 1998, he became the biggest vote-getter in Minnesota history. Justice Page continued to get re-elected to his seat until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, making him one of the longest serving Supreme Court Justices in Minnesota history.
Medal of Freedom
In 2017, a student led campaign was successful in renaming their middle school from Alexander Ramsey to Justice Alan Page. November 16, 2018 President Trump awarded Justice Page the Medal of Freedom, the highest presidential honor bestowed on a civilian. Three days later on November 19, 2018 Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed that date Justice Alan C. Page Day in Minnesota.
Melvin Carter is the 46th Mayor of the City of St. Paul and the first African-American to serve in that role in the history of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a native of St. Paul – his father was a police officer and his mother a teacher (she later became a Commissioner for Ramsey County). Prior to his new role as Mayor, Carter served on as a councilmember for the City of St. Paul.
According to his website, Melvin’s passion for civic engagement began in 2000, when as a college student his brother-in-law was turned away from casting an all-important Presidential election ballot in a Florida polling precinct. After fighting for his brother-in-law’s right to vote and protesting that year’s historic acts of disenfranchisement in the Florida State Capitol, Melvin found himself on a path toward public service. Since then, Mayor Carter has been working to engage, enfranchise and uplift people in St. Paul and across the state and nation. He’s trained political candidates, community organizers and campaign staff in over 30 states with several national organizations, including Wellstone Action.