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“Her family life was kind of sad,” Oglesby said. “She couldn’t devote a lot of time to her marriages because organizing was her life.”
Johnson formed a more-lasting relationship with Humphrey, whom she met in 1938.
“There were two basic things that Hubert and I fought for and were hard-nosed about that changed this country: the right of labor to organize, and the right of black people to live and not be hung from the hanging tree,” Johnson said in her oral history.
Johnson was the first black elected official in Minneapolis, winning a seat on the Library Board in 1945. Brauer noted that this signature achievement revealed Johnson’s discipline.
“She really wanted to run for school board, but Labor had candidates slotted for those spots, and she was a good solider who understood the need to wait her turn,” Brauer said.
Johnson supported herself as a seamstress when she wasn’t working for her causes. As much as she believed in the effort, Johnson sometimes wearied of the cost. Hines talked to her in 1996.
“She said, ‘Some people look at me as a pest,’ ” Hines said. “When they tore down Sumner-Olson [a North Side housing project], she was one of the people who helped form the protest and a lot of people were ticked off — City Council folks — because she held their feet to the fire and said, ‘You can’t do this.’ ”
Johnson’s belief in education is remembered today through the Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Fund, which helps minority union members attending one of Minnesota’s state colleges and universities. She was on the board of the former Minnesota State University System (now MnSCU), which established the fund in 1989. There is also the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in north Minneapolis. Even that was bittersweet, though.
“She said, ‘They named a school after me but do those kids know what I did?’ ” Hines said. “And I have to agree with her.”
Graydon Royce • 621-673-7299