State Capitol dedicates a ‘place and space’ for Nellie Stone Johnson – and all she represents

Family of Nellie Stone Johnson, who died in 2002, got the first look at a new statue honoring her legacy.

A new statue unveiled in the Capitol yesterday celebrates the legacy of Nellie Stone Johnson, a towering figure in Minnesota’s labor, political and civil rights history. 

After a ceremony that included music, a video remembrance and speeches from the honoree’s colleagues and admirers, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan joined the youngest members of Stone Johnson’s family in pulling a drape off her statue, installed just north of the rotunda.  

It is the Capitol’s first new statue in six decades and the only to honor woman of color. Flanagan boasted that Minnesota is the first state government in the U.S. to authorize the installation of a statue in its Capitol honoring a Black woman. 

“Now when our students are visiting the Capitol, they are going to see and learn about the legacy of Nellie and all she represents,” Flanagan said. “They are going to see themselves reflected in the people’s house in a way they haven’t before.” 

Born in Lakeville in 1905, Stone Johnson herself accomplished many “firsts” during her lifetime, including a successful bid for a seat on the Library Board in 1945 that made her the first Black person elected to citywide office in Minneapolis.  

A powerful figure in the Farmer-Labor movement, Stone Johnson helped lead its eventual merger with the Democratic Party in the 1940s. Candidates often sought her endorsement, including Hubert Humphrey during his mayoral campaigns of 1943 and 1945. She served as a member of the Democratic National Committee in 1980, and joined a delegation to Africa with Vice President Walter Mondale.   

But before becoming a political leader, Stone Johnson was a union organizer, as Workday Minnesota remembered in an obituary published after her death in April 2002:

“In the 1930s, while working as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, her wages were cut from $15.00 to $12.50 per week. She responded by secretly organizing the workers into a union. Later she was elected the first woman vice president of the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.” 

Stone Johnson was the first woman vice-president of the Minnesota Culinary Council, and she pushed a national contract negotiations committee to address issues like pay equity. 

At the same time, Stone Johnson was active in the movement for civil rights and racial equality. She helped lead a fundraising drive, organized by the Civil Rights Congress, to help Black voters in Texas pay poll taxes, which would otherwise have prevented them from voting. Stone Johnson remained active in the NAACP throughout her adult life. 

Many speakers at the ceremony recalled Stone Johnson’s passionate support for education as a gateway to good-paying jobs. She served on both the Minnesota State University Board and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, and several current Minnesota State administrators were on hand for the unveiling. 

So, too, were past recipients of a scholarship bearing Stone Johnson’s name, awarded each year since 1989 to racial minority union members and their families attending a Minnesota State institution.  

“She had a sense of humanness that could only come out of where she came from,” said Dr. Tamrat Tademe, a professor at St. Cloud  State University who worked with Stone Johnson and serves on the scholarship board. “And with Nellie there was always a call to do better.  

Students from Nellie Stone Johnson School in Minneapolis attended the dedication ceremony.

“I hope we all listen to Nellie’s call. I hope we don’t shelve her statue and leave it there. We have to listen to her call to do better in this state.” 

Minnesota unions and their members played a critical role in creating a space to honor Stone Johnson at the Capitol, from lobbying in support of authorizing the statue to donating funds toward its completion.  

“Thank God for the unions,” said former state Rep. Joe Mullery, who authored the 2014 bill. “They understood how important it is for working people and students to come to the Capitol and be inspired by seeing someone like them.” 

The first students to get a look at the new statue, appropriately, were part of a delegation from the Minneapolis elementary bearing Stone Johnson’s name.  

Thinking of the countless others soon to follow, Flanagan closed her remarks with a note of gratitude: “Thank you for this opportunity for every little girl to know that she has a place and space in this building in whatever role she chooses.” 

Learn more about Nellie Stone Johnson, her legacy and the scholarship bearing her name at nelliestone.org. 

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