Remembering Nellie

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April 16, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

Her life was a testament to the forces that shaped Downtown in the 20th Century

A few years ago, when I was a freelance writer, I got an assignment to write the life story of a legend: Nellie Stone Johnson. She was famous in political circles as a founder of the DFL party, and the first black elected official in Minneapolis, a tireless crusader for unions, education and civil rights. She was then 93. "Somebody better write her story before she dies," one sponsor told me.

Nellie did die earlier this month at 96, but not before she spent two years over countless cups of strong coffee telling me her life story.

Some saw her black skin (overlooking the French, Irish and Native American there, too) and assumed she migrated here, but, Nellie was more Minnesotan than anyone reading this column. She was born on a Dakota County farm in 1905, lived in Minneapolis for 80 years, and was buried nearly a century later in the soil she was born on. She did a lot of organizing on the north side, but Nellie was a Downtowner through and through -- her life is a testament to the forces that shaped Downtown in the 20th Century.

As a kid, she first came to Downtown on the Dan Patch railroad, to buy bananas with her dad in the sprawling market that birthed the Warehouse District. As a young nanny for a Loring Park family, she walked past the same market and watched cops bust the heads of Teamsters, directed by virulently anti-union businessmen. Yet a few years later, as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, Nellie helped organize a new union that today is Hotel Workers Local 17.

Nellie's organizing approach was typical of her shrewdness. It was the Depression, and club owners cut her pay from $15 a week to $12.50 -- money she used to buy groceries. The club owners pleaded poverty, but Nellie knew better: although blacks were segregated in back-shop operations like the kitchen, Nellie had gotten to know the white secretaries, who also had their pay cut. One slipped her the club's financial report -- which showed that poverty stopped at the club's door.

Armed with the info, Nellie was uniquely positioned to convince workers to join the union: she ran the freight elevator where management didn't deign to travel. "People were at my mercy because the employees' dressing rooms were on the 14th floor," she said. "We'd strong-arm them into joining the union before we'd let them off the elevator."

The mostly black workers ended up getting their raise. The white secretaries did, too, because what self-respecting power elite lets black workers earn more than white office workers? Nellie knew how to take prejudice and do ju-jitsu on it.

She became the first woman on a contract-negotiating team, and a force within the powerful Farmer-Labor party. In 1944, saddled by three straight gubernatorial defeats and facing the historic task of electing a fourth-term president (FDR), 38-year-old Nellie was one of the F-L pragmatists who met in the Downtown YMCA cafeteria to organize the merger that would produce the DFL - Minnesota's dominant political party for a generation.

She remembered that negotiating at the Y "was against the rules, because you're not supposed to do political meetings there. I got tired of getting up every Sunday morning, because I needed a rest after a long work week! You could tell working-class people were involved because we had to meet on Sundays; today, a bunch of lawyers and hirelings could meet whenever they want to! We met there because, for those of us who got up early without eating breakfast, there was a cafeteria."

At age 45, she was fired for union organizing for the final time. She became a seamstress in the small operations dappling Downtown. At age 58, a specialist in sleeve-shortening, she became an entrepreneur, opening Nellie's Alterations, on Nicollet where City Center now stands.

Nellie recalled, "As the word about my work spread, sometimes people would have the nerve to say to me, 'I didn't know someone as skilled as you came out of the black community.' I said to them, 'I could even build you a house' - kind of flipping off to them."

Nellie remembered one particular customer "heavy-set, almost Mr. Five-by-Five. He was a member at the Athletic Club, ate too much food and drank too much whiskey. I always had to cut his sleeves down several inches.

"He said to me one day, 'Nellie, I'm glad you're around, there's hardly anybody in town to do this kind of work.' I don't know why it hit me then, but I had to remind him of some history - that he owned a business that wouldn't hire me when I was once looking for a job.

"My niece was working for me at the time, and her ears got as big as all outdoors! When I reminded my Five-by-Five of this, he got pretty upset. He said, 'well, you just lost a customer.' And I just came right back at him; I told him, 'You'll be back.'

"My niece looked at me like I just lost my mind. Sure enough, two or three weeks later, he brought some shirts in. What did I do? I just gave him a long look."

That was Nellie in a nutshell -- fierce, proud, capable; pragmatic but indestructibly principled. She outworked anyone, winning back temporary opponents with her skill and rolling over enemies with her tenacity.

Typically, she kept her alterations shop going into her late 80s, moving down Nicollet after the coming of City Center. Until she grew too ill to take care of herself, she lived at 314 Hennepin Ave., a public-housing high-rise named after a fellow civil-rights crusader who was born after her and died before. She never let me see an apartment that was rumored to be a disaster area, but each week for 100 weeks, we met, sometimes in style at the New French Caf, or sometimes after a rough morning in the high-rise common room, where she reminisced over double-strength coffee (occasionally mixed with something even stronger) about the ghosts of bloodied union workers and pig-ignorant adversaries.

We got the book done while she was healthy; when a reporter told me Nellie died, it still took my breath away. You don't lose a force without a vacuum replacing it.

I now edit a Downtown newspaper, and it occurs to me that in our fine line-up of columnists, we don't have a Downtown worker -- a secretary or a union member or a cafeteria server -- who can tell us tales of their Downtown the way Nellie told me tales of hers. Consider this an invitation for submissions, in her memory and in her honor.

David Brauer is the editor of Skyway News. Submit a sample column to 3225 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, Mn. 55408, or to dbrauer@skywaynews.net.