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.
“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.”