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Thu, 08.13.1885

Lena O. Smith, a first in Minnesota

Lena O. Smith

*This date marks the birth of Lena O. Smith in 1885. She was a Black attorney and civil rights advocate.

From Lawrence, Kansas she moved with her family to Minnesota in 1906. Smith enrolled in Northwestern College of Law, one of five law schools that became William Mitchell College of Law.  In 1921, with a class of 16 she opened her own firm and became the first Black woman to practice law in the state. Four years later the talented attorney helped found the Minneapolis branch of the Urban League and between 1935 and 1939, Smith served as president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP. Her contemporaries recall Smith as one of the most aggressive and successful civil rights lawyers of her time.

In 1937 she defended a Black man beaten by two off-duty white police officers for drunkenness. Smith got the charges dropped, monetary settlement for client, and persuaded the police department to transfer the offending officers to another district.  Smith was active the Minnesota state and local bar associations. She was honored in 1965 as one of the invited guest at the Johnson-Humphrey inaugural in Washington, D. C. Lena Smith died in 1966, leaving a record of accomplishments that serve as a lasting example.

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

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