Appointment of Judge Wilhelmina Wright calls to mind Minnesota's first black woman lawyer.
When Court of Appeals Judge Wilhelmina Wright was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Monday, she stood on the shoulders of someone most Minnesotans have never heard of -- Lena O. Smith.
Smith was the first African-American woman lawyer in Minnesota. Without her work and that of other grassroots activists, it is unlikely that Gov. Dayton would have named Wright, the first woman of African-American descent to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Before she became a lawyer in 1921, Smith worked as a real estate agent. Real estate has long been one of the fault lines for race in Minnesota. Smith's experience soon led her to begin walking up one flight of stairs from her realty office in the Plymouth Building in downtown Minneapolis to attend evening law classes at a law school that would become William Mitchell College of Law.
From the time she was licensed until her death in 1966, Smith worked with her community to promote equality. She fought discrimination even as she helped people with the divorces, criminal defense and real estate closings that made up her bread and butter in solo practice.
Eleven days after becoming a lawyer, she filed suit on behalf of an aged black couple. The Parkinsons were being cheated by the man who held their mortgage. In a tactic reminiscent of the post-bellum South, the mortgagor claimed the Parkinsons had been paying rent for 25 years, not buying the home.
He refused to give them their deed. The Parkinsons were dues-paying NAACP members who likely found Smith when they turned to that organization for help. She won them their home by convincing a jury to order the bullying deed holder to transfer title to them.
Smith's record of fighting for justice continued. Ten years later, she again stood up to race-based real estate bullying when she intervened with a mob that was threatening the home of Arthur and Edith Lee in a largely white south Minneapolis neighborhood.
When the young Lee family moved in to their new home on the 4600 block of Columbus Avenue, a "neighborhood improvement association" began pressuring them to sell the house back and leave.
While the Lees were figuring out what to do, thousands of people milled about outside the home during a hot week in July 1931. The house was defaced with black paint, the family dog was killed with poison, and the Lees and their friends feared that the house might be stormed and people killed.
Lena Smith was not one to acquiesce to racists. She persuaded the Lees to refuse the offer to turn back the home, and demanded that the governor and mayor help to restore order to the street. Eventually, the mobs dissipated, and 6-year-old Mary Lee began kindergarten that fall.
Lena Smith was present when the Minneapolis police used excessive force on black citizens, when restaurants refused to serve black patrons, when movie theaters enforced segregated sections, when prosecutors appealed to race prejudice to attempt to win convictions.
Before passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, Minnesota had laws against discrimination that were stronger than those of most states. But day-to-day race relations did not match the ideals of our laws, and discrimination was rampant despite the decent rules.
Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright is aware of Lena Smith's story: She was given the Lena O. Smith Achievement Award by the Minnesota Black Women Lawyers Network in 2004.
May her judicial decisions be enriched by the legacies of the many people such as the Lees who stayed calm and steel-strong in the face of humiliation, threats, and violence. They paved the path toward equality for our state and for our new justice.
Somewhere, Lena Smith is smiling.
Ann Juergens is professor of law and co-director of clinics at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and the author of "Lena Olive Smith: A Minnesota Civil Rights Pioneer."