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Dakota County History 101: Nellie Stone Johnson (1905-2002) Civil Rights Activist

Johnson was active in the labor movement and helped support the formation of the DFL Party.

Nellie Stone Johnson was born Dec. 17, 1905 in Lakeville. Johnson’s career in activism began at the University of Minnesota during the 1920s. While a college student, Johnson was a member of the Young Communist League, the Young Socialists and the Socialist-Labor Party. From a young age Johnson considered herself a radical, someone she defined as “not satisfied with the status quo.” 

Johnson’s activism encompassed all points of American culture including politics, civil rights, labor, and education. Along with Hubert Humphrey, Johnson was of paramount importance to the establishment of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in the 1940s.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Johnson fought for the desegregation of the armed forces as a member of the NAACP.  Johnson was the first African American elected to a Minneapolis public office in 1946 when she joined the Minneapolis Library Board. 

The Minneapolis Athletic Club employed Johnson beginning in the 1930s. While at the club, Johnson founded the Local 665 of the Hotel and Restaurant International Union and Minneapolis’s first health and welfare program for food workers.

Johnson was also committed to improving education for Minnesota’s youth. She served on the Minnesota Higher Education Board, the Minnesota State University Board, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board during her long career. 

In 1950, Johnson was fired from the Minneapolis Athletic Club for union-organizing on the job. Soon after, Johnson opened up Nellie’s Zipper and Shirt Repair Shop in Minneapolis. Johnson remained involved with education and the DFL Party right up to her death in April 2002.

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