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Debate over first black teacher in Minneapolis School District

  • Blog Post by: Randy Furst
  • May 2, 2014 - 4:14 PM

A debate has emerged over who was the first black school teacher in the Minneapolis School District.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune wrote a front page story about Bertha M. Smith, who died April 18.

The story quoted Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis superintendent of schools, calling Smith “a pioneer in education in Minneapolis.” Johnson stated that “As the first African-American hired as a teacher in Minneapolis public schools, she (Smith)  broke down barriers and enabled our students, regardless of their race, to see themselves reflected in their teachers and school staff.”

The day the article ran, Joy Bartlett, who lives in Nevada, called to say that while Bertha Smith was an excellent teacher, Bartlett’s mother, Mary Jackson Ellis, was the first black teacher hired by the Minneapolis school district. Ellis died in 1975 at the age of 57.

We went to the newspaper’s morgue, where old newspaper clippings are filed, and found a two-inch article with the headline “Negro Teacher for Kindergarten Named” that had been published on Sept. 19, 1947 in the Minneapolis Star Journal, a forerunner to The Star, and then the Star Tribune.

The article says, “Appointment of Mrs. Mary Jackson Ellis, 4113 Fourth Ave. S., as kindergarten teacher in Hawthorne Elementary School, Twenty fourth avenue and Sixth street N., was announced today by the board of education. It said Ellis was “the first Negro teacher to be employed in the city school system on a fulltime basis in 35 years.

On Thursday, the Star Tribune contacted the school district which said it would look into the matter. A spokesman called back to say, “To the best of our knowledge, Bertha Smith is still the first black hired by the district.”

The Star Tribune, in its Thursday article, quoted civil rights activist Ron Edwards saying that Nellie Stone Johnson, a civil rights leader, and Cecil Newman, publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a black newspaper, put pressure on the district to hire Smith.

Bartlett had a similar account. She said that Newman had learned that the district had refused to hire Ellis and called Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. The two men visited the superintendent of schools and Newman said that if the district did not hire Ellis, he was going to go to press at 2 p.m. with an article stating that she had not been hired because she was black. The district relented and hired Ellis, Bartlett said.

© 2014 Star Tribune