Nellie Stone Johnson, the Minnesota-born labor and civil-rights activist, left a legacy of “firsts.” Now, Minnesotans have an opportunity to add to that legacy by making Johnson the first woman, first African American and first labor leader honored with a bust in the State Capitol.
The Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton last session authorized honoring Johnson with a bust in a prominent spot in the Capitol. But the project is contingent upon supporters independently raising enough money to draw $30,000 in matching funds from the state to pay for the sculpture.
A group of labor activists has taken up the fundraising effort. To contribute, send a check to “NSJ Capitol Fund” to Union Bank and Trust, 312 Central Ave. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.
Rep. Joe Mullery of Minneapolis spearheaded efforts to win approval and funding for the bust.
“I believe she not only deserves to be in the Capitol for her actions, but that a bust of her will be a symbol of all of the Minnesotans like her who have made contributions to our state,” Mullery said. “There is no bust of a woman. There is no bust of an African-American Minnesotan. There is no bust of a leader in the fight for worker’s rights.
“I think her bust will have great meaning for all these Minnesotans, especially for young kids who visit the Capitol and see someone like them or has a meaning to them.”
Johnson, born in Lakeville in 1905, distinguished herself not only as a labor and civil-rights leader, but as a business owner, an elected official and a fierce advocate for public education as well.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Johnson rose to prominent roles within two labor unions. She was elected the first woman vice-president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and the first woman vice-president of Local 665 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.
Johnson won a seat on the Minneapolis Library Board in 1945, becoming the first black person elected to citywide office. Later in life, she served as a trustee of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
A scholarship fund bearing her name provides assistance to racial minority union members and their families attending MnSCU schools.