Nellie and William Francis were doing so well in 1924 they decided to move four miles southwest in St. Paul — leaving their Rondo neighborhood for a house in the Groveland Park area near the Mississippi River.

The 1920 census listed the couple, married for 27 years, as “Mu” for mulatto. Skin color hadn’t deterred William Francis from becoming “prominent in religious, political, social and fraternal circles,” according to the Twin City Star newspaper.

He was a railroad lawyer and she was a suffragette and civic activist. But when they moved into their house at 2092 Sargent Av., just east of Cretin Avenue, their race would render them “direct victims of virulent racial hatred,” according to former law school dean Douglas Heidenreich’s 2000 article in William Mitchell magazine.

Nellie Griswold was born in 1874 in Nashville, but moved north in time to graduate from St. Paul Central High School in the 1890s and become president of the Minnesota State Federation of Colored Women in the early 20th Century.

As leader of the Everywoman Suffrage Club, she helped women earn the right to vote in 1920. The next year, she was credited with writing the state anti-lynching bill that allowed survivors to collect $7,500 in damages, nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars. The legislation — spawned by the 1920 lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth — also punished neglectful police who allowed lynchings under their watch. They could be fired for malfeasance.

In 1893, Nellie married William Francis — an Indiana native five years her senior. At 19, he had moved to Minnesota, where he graduated in 1904 from St. Paul College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law).

Working his way up at Northern Pacific Railway Co., Francis climbed from office messenger to a position as the railroad’s chief clerk in its legal department.

He earned more than 9,000 votes in an unsuccessful City Council race in 1906. Within six years, he had inherited the private practice of Minnesota’s first black lawyer, Fredrick McGhee. When Francis’ law office was razed to make room for the St. Paul Athletic Club, he moved into a stately bank building nearby on Fifth and Cedar streets.

His next move didn’t go as well.

When the Francises moved to Sargent Avenue in 1924, the Cretin Improvement Association first urged them to change their minds. Then the group — fearing property values would drop if a “colored” couple moved in — launched a fund drive to buy the house. They offered a little extra for the couple’s “inconvenience.”

Oscar Arneson, the Cretin group’s leader, “was no classic redneck,” according to Heidenreich’s article (tinyurl.com/za4pp8r).

Arneson, a Norwegian-born journalist who owned a printing business, had served multiple terms as chief clerk of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He insisted he had nothing personal against the Francises. But what if other black families followed them into the neighborhood?

Accounts vary, with some saying the couple were eventually prepared to accept the group’s offer while others insisted the association never came up with the cash. Either way, the Francises didn’t budge.

Cretin group members began marching out front, burning flares. Threatening phone calls and letters followed. Two crosses were eventually burned on their lawn. With no trust in local police, the Francises hired private security guards.

Arneson said the Ku Klux Klan typically burned crosses only twice. He said his “improvement association” could not be responsible for what happened next, Heidenreich wrote.

The group failed to secure a parade permit for another demonstration. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day 1926, Arneson was walking home from a neighborhood party with his wife when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 48.

The Francises stayed in their home until 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge appointed William a minister resident and consul general to Liberia. The couple moved to Monrovia, the capital of the West African nation founded for former slaves and their freed descendants.

Francis’ job wasn’t easy. The American Firestone Rubber Co. was busy burning acres of jungles to build plantations in the 1920s. And disease, namely yellow fever, was prevalent, according to his diplomatic correspondence.

By summer 1929, doctors told Francis they were changing his diagnosis from malaria to yellow fever. “The intense pain and suffering of the Minister …” a fellow diplomat wrote, “can hardly be described.”

When he died, at 60, Secretary of State Henry Stimson called him one of the country’s “most able and trusted public servants” who did “splendid work in Liberia.”

Nellie died 40 years later, in 1969, and they are buried side by side in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.

“It was to all appearances an extraordinarily happy union of two extraordinarily talented people,” Heidenreich wrote, pointing to a 1918 story in the Appeal, a local black newspaper.

The story describes the Francises’ elaborate 25th anniversary party, when they recreated their lavish wedding with speeches, songs and a replay of the original ceremony.

They threw that party at their home at 606 St. Anthony Av. in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. That was 50 years before construction of Interstate 94 tore through their neighborhood — and six years before their move to a white neighborhood triggered such racial rancor.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com