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Women’s History Month, Minnesota Edition: Nellie Stone Johnson

In honor of Women’s History Month we’re writing a series of blog posts about famous (and not so famous) women from Minnesota history. Our second post in the series is about African American union and civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson.

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Nellie Stone Johnson was born on a farm in Lakeville, MN on December 17, 1905. Her mother was trained as a teacher, though she spent much of her time working on the farm. Her father was a farmer, organizer, and a school board member in Dakota and Pine County. He helped organize the Twin Cities Milk Producers Association and was a member of the Non-Partisan League. Johnson and her family re-located to a larger farm near Hinckley when she was a teenager.

At the age of 17, Johnson left Pine County to finish her high school education by taking extension courses at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She got involved with the Young Communist League while she was a student and used some of what she learned in her later work organizing labor.

Johnson got a job as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1924, but was fired several years later for labor union activities. She moved on to the West Hotel, where she worked until new owners decided that they no longer wanted to employ African Americans. She returned to the Athletic Club in 1933 and started her (official) work as a labor organizer the next year when her employer decided to cut wages.

Johnson’s life was one of many firsts, despite her assertion that she was simply “a farm gal from Minnesota”. In 1936, Johnson was elected as the vice president of her local union, the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. She was the first woman elected to that position. She was also the first woman vice president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and the first woman to serve on a national contract committee where she helped negotiate equal pay for women.

Johnson was active in the Farmer-Labor party in the 1930s and 40s and helped facilitate the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties in 1944. She became the first African American elected to a city-wide office in Minneapolis when she won election to the Minneapolis Library Board in 1945. She helped create Minneapolis’ first Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was established by executive order by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey in 1946, and also spearheaded passage of Minnesota’s Fair Employment and Fair Housing Laws in the 1950s.

Johnson opened her own business, Nellie’s Alterations, in Minneapolis in 1963. In 1972, she campaigned for Van White, the first African American elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Johnson received an honorary doctorate from St. Cloud State University in 1995. She was a long-time member of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women and served on the Minnesota State University Board for eight years. She was also a member of the National Coalition of Labor Women, the National League of Women Voters, the DFL Affirmative Action Commission, and the DFL Feminist Caucus, a former board member of the Minneapolis Urban League, and recipient of the Urban League’s Cecil E. Newman Humanitarian Award.

Nellie Stone Johnson died in Minneapolis on April 2, 2002, at the age of 96.

Sources:

1. Johnson, Nellie Stone, and David Brauer. Nellie Stone Johnson: the life of an activist. Saint Paul, MN: Ruminator, 2001. Print.

2. “Who was Nellie Stone Johnson?” Who was Nellie Stone Johnson? N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

3. “Johnson, Nellie Stone (1905–2002).” MNopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

4. Minnesota, Barb Kucera Workday, and RUSA Leighann Wood. “A Nellie Stone Johnson Timeline.” Workday Minnesota. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

5. “A Brief History of Civil Rights Protection in Minneaplis.” http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/www/groups/public/@civilrights/documents/webcontent/convert_253586.pdf. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.


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Women’s History Month, Minnesota Edition: Coya Knutson

In honor of Women’s History Month we’re writing a series of blog posts about famous (and not so famous) women from Minnesota history. Our first post is about political pioneer Coya Knutson.

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Coya Knutson, born Cornelia Gjesdahl in 1912 on a farm in Edmore, ND, was the first woman elected to represent the State of Minnesota in the United States House of Representatives.

Knutson graduated with a degree in education from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN in 1934 and left for New York to pursue an education in opera at The Julliard School. She returned to the Midwest when her music career didn’t pan out, teaching high school classes in North Dakota and Minnesota. She married Andy Knutson in 1940 and re-located to Oklee, Minnesota, where she worked as a school teacher and helped her husband run a small hotel.

Knutson, like many other women who have run for elected office, got involved in politics through community activism. According to her House of Representatives biography, she “served as a field agent for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, investigating issues of price support. She helped establish the Oklee Medical Clinic, a local Red Cross branch, and the Community Chest Fund.”

She joined the newly formed Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party in the 1940’s and was appointed chair of the DFL’s Red Lake County organization in 1948. The DFL encouraged her to run for the state legislature; she did so and was elected to serve in the Minnesota House in 1950. After serving two terms she decided that she wanted to run for Congress, despite opposition from DFL party leaders. She self-financed her campaign and traveled the state to talk to voters. She beat the DFL-endorsed candidate in the primary election and then went on to defeat six-term Republican incumbent Harold Hagen in the general election.

Once in Congress, she served on the Agriculture Committee and advocated for policies that helped farmers. She also advocated for funding for cystic fibrosis research and a federal student financial aid program. A bill that she wrote, which helped establish the first federal student loan program, was included in the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that was passed in 1958.

Days after the district convention in 1958, Knutson’s husband released a letter (believed to have been written by DFLers who held a grudge against Knutson) that called on Knutson to give up her bid for re-election and return home to care for her family. The letter received considerable media attention and it, along with rumors that she was having an affair with an aide, likely helped lead to her defeat in the 1958 election.

In 1961 Knutson was appointed as the liaison officer for the Department of Defense in the Office of Civil Defense, where she served from 1961 to 1970. She divorced her alcoholic, abusive husband in 1962. She attempted to become involved in electoral politics again in 1977 but was unsuccessful.

Knutson died on October 10, 1996 at the age of 82.


Sources: Minnesota Historical Society LibGuide: “Coya Knutson: Groundbreaking Conrgresswoman.” Web address: http://libguides.mnhs.org/knutson

United States House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives. Web address: http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16457

Halloran, Liz. “The Congresswoman Whose Husband Called Her Home.” May 10, 2014. Web address: http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2014/05/10/310996960/the-congresswoman-whose-husband-called-her-home