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Sun, 12.17.1905

Nellie Stone Johnson, Businesswoman, and Union Activist born

Nellie S. Johnson

*Nellie Stone Johnson was born on this date in 1905. She was a Black activist, administrator, and businesswoman.

From Lakeville, Minnesota, Nellie Saunders Allen and her six siblings grew up on a dairy farm near Hinckley, Minnesota. Her father was a member of the Non-Partisan League, a radical rural organization. Her mother was a college-educated schoolteacher from Kentucky and had African, French, Irish, and Native American ancestry.

Johnson grew up with a strong tradition of support for education. Her grandmother was also a teacher with an interest in political philosophy. Her father was a school board member in Dakota County.  At age 13, Johnson distributed Non-Partisan League flyers on her way to and from school. She graduated from Hinckley High School and left home at 17 to finish high school through the GED program at the University of Minnesota.

After several years in the workforce, Johnson continued her studies at the University of Wisconsin, using the money she earned from trapping to finance her education. For over 30 years, she owned and operated Nellie's Alterations in downtown Minneapolis.  Johnson's commitment to education continued through her Minnesota Higher Education Board work.

She had a long and distinguished record of public service in support of the advancement of minority concerns, the rights of workers, and equal opportunities for all people. As a leader of organized labor in the 1930s and 1940s, she was the first woman vice-president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and vice-president of Local 665 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. She was the first Black person elected to citywide office in Minneapolis when she won a seat on the Library Board in 1945.

She also served on the Minnesota State University Board for eight years and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees. Johnson inspired one of the nameless bronze sculptures, titled "Shadow Spirits." The statues represent individuals who contributed to the development of Minneapolis and are symbolic of persons who disappeared or are omitted from the pages of our history.

The W. Harry Davis Foundation honored Nellie in 1988 for her service to the community. Johnson’s many contributions were featured in the book "Contributions of Black Women to Minnesota History." The "Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship" was founded in 1989. It is awarded annually to minority students from union families.  In 1995, she received an honorary doctorate degree from St. Cloud State University.

Johnson was a life member of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women; a member of the National Coalition of Labor Women, the National League of Women Voters, the D.F.L. Affirmative Action Commission, and the D.F.L. Feminist Caucus; a former board member of the Minneapolis Urban League, and recipient of the Urban League's Cecil E. Newman Humanitarian Award.  She was married twice, to Clyde Stone for eight years and Lee Johnson for five years. Both marriages ended in divorce. Nellie Stone Johnson died on April 2, 2002; she was 96.

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migrant workers in Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society
345 W. Kellogg Blvd.
Saint Paul, MN 55102-1906

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