Johnson helped form the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL) and spearheaded the effort to create the first Fair Employment Practices department in the nation. She counseled both Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale and was on the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s.
BiographyNellie Saunders Allen was born in Dakota County, Minnesota, near Lakeville, to William and Gladys (née Foree) Allen, one of the few black farming families in Minnesota in the early 1900s. Her mother was a college-educated school teacher from Kentucky and had African American, French, Irish and American Indian ancestry. Their family had a dairy farm and her father was involved with the Nonpartisan League, helping organize farmers and co-founding the Twin Cities Milk Producers Association. When she was 13, she distributed literature for the Nonpartisan League on her way to school. Nellie attended public schools in both Dakota and Pine Counties. The family moved to a larger farm east of Hinckley in 1919. She would milk cows every morning and earned money by trapping muskrat and mink. She joined the NAACP as a teenager. Nellie attended school in Clover Township, which only taught up to the 10th grade.
In September 1922, Nellie moved to Minneapolis where she was a live-in nanny for a white family that lived close to Loring Park. She then moved into her aunt and uncle's house in north Minneapolis. She took extension courses at the University of Minnesota, initially at the agriculture school. She took chemistry, intending to become a pharmacist, before gravitating towards social and political science. While at the University she took classes from E.W. Ziebarth and met Paul Robeson and Swan Assarson. She finished her GED in 1925.
In 1924, she was hired as an elevator attendant at the all-male Minneapolis Athletic Club, earning $15 per week. After her wages were cut to $12.50, she began quietly organizing workers with the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers union. In the 1930s she joined the University of Minnesota's Young Communist League. In 1936, she became a member and then vice president of AFL's Local 665, Hotel and Restaurant Workers union.
Johnson met future Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1941 at Duluth State College. She would later mentor him in civil rights issues. In 1944, she was on the committee that merged the moderate Minnesota Democratic Party with the more radical Farmer–Labor Party, forming the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL).
In 1945, she was elected to the Library Board and became the first black person to be elected to a citywide office in Minneapolis.
Johnson was the main force behind the creation of state and local Fair Employment Practices departments, which later became the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission and the state Human Rights Department. In the 1940s she spearheaded the drive to create the Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices department, which was the first of its kind in the nation. In 1955, she led the initiative to create a statewide version of the Minneapolis legislation, the Employment Practices Act of 1955. She also authored the 1950 initiative from the Minneapolis NAACP that led to the desegregation of the US armed forces.
She had differences with the Communist party leadership in 1946.
She was fired from her job at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1950 and in October 1950, she resigned her position as Chair of the Hennepin County Progressive Party. She lost a union election for the Local 665 in January 1951, at a time when left wing officers in the union were on the wane. In February 1951, Johnson formally severed her relations with the Progressive and Communist Parties.
A seamstress, in 1963 Johnson opened her own sewing and alterations shop in the old Kresge building She continued her business in downtown Minneapolis for over 30 years. In the 1980s her store in the Lumber Exchange Building was known as Nellie's Shirt & Zipper Shopand in 1988 her store was named Nellie's Alterations.
Johnson continued to be active in state and local politics and was Van Freeman White's campaign manager in his successful 1979 bid for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. She traveled to Africa for the State Department with Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980 and Governor Rudy Perpich appointed her to the Minnesota State University Board in 1982. In the 1980s she was a member of the Democratic National Committee for two terms.
After a power struggle, she was ousted from the Minneapolis Urban League in 1987.
The Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Program was founded in 1989 and offers scholarships to minority students from union families.
Johnson released an autobiography in 2000, Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist. The book was edited and organized by David Brauer from over 50 interviews.
Johnson was a trustee of the Minneapolis Public Library and a board member of MnSCU. She received a lifetime achievement award from the Black Caucus of the American Association for Higher Education in 2000.
She died on April 2, 2002 in Minneapolis. She was 96. Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in Minneapolis is named for her.