Years after her death, the memory of Nellie Stone Johnson still commands attention in the story of Minnesota politics, unions and civil rights.
Playwright Kim Hines knew that Nellie Stone Johnson had cut a wide swath through Minnesota history. In her 96 years, Johnson championed outsiders, organized workers, promoted education, advised Hubert Humphrey and helped found the DFL Party.
What Hines did not realize was the intense passion felt by friends and devotees of the labor and civil rights activist. At a reading of Hines’ play “Nellie” at History Theatre a few years ago, she saw that loyalty reflected in the audience.
“I was stunned by the number of people who showed up on this cold night and knew her,” Hines recalled. “I had no idea of the following.”
Hines will again gauge the durability of Johnson’s memory when “Nellie” opens Saturday, this time in a full production at History Theatre in St. Paul. Richard Thompson directs an eight-person cast that includes Greta Oglesby playing old Nellie reviewing her life, and Shá Cage as young Nellie.
Johnson, who died in 2002, earned her following through hard work. Though she was influential with the high and mighty, Johnson was not a show horse or prima donna and she had little time for associates who shirked duty.
“She did not suffer fools gladly,” said David Brauer, a Minneapolis writer who helped Johnson write her oral autobgiography. “She did not like to waste time.”
Brauer recalls that when he met Johnson to discuss the book, she warned him to set aside the preconceptions that many people had about her.
“The truth is, a lot of how I think of myself comes from the farm, a farm gal from Minnesota,” she said on the first pages of the book, “Nellie Johnson: Life of an Activist.”
Born Nellie Allen in 1905, her parents were progressive, educated farmers in Lakeville and then Pine County. They fed beef cattle and milked up to 50 cows, including an old Guernsey she remembered fondly.
“I kind of liked to milk — I remember I would lay up against her and get warm when the weather was cold,” she said in the book.
Nellie joined the NAACP, moved to Minneapolis in her late teens, attended the University of Minnesota and went to work as an elevator operator.
“That was the entrée into her life as an activist,” Hines said.
Soon, she was helping unionize elevator operators, hanging out with the Young Communists at the university and getting involved with the Farmer Labor party, which dominated Minnesota politics during the Great Depression. Johnson became a key player when the party merged with Democrats in 1944 to form the DFL.
One of the scenes in Hines’ play shows Nellie at her first union meeting. Oglesby, as the older woman, sits in the midst of the excitement.
“I found in just that little scene, you get a sense of what drove her,” Oglesby said. “She was passionate about union work and was a force to be reckoned with.”
Nellie picked up her familiar surnames from two husbands, Clyde Stone and Lee Johnson. Both marriages ended in divorce.