She rolled her own cigarettes, played guitar, painted with oils and watercolors and insisted her grandchildren mind their manners and use proper English.

“She was a teacher, after all, and very proper,” Sue-Ellyn Rempel said, describing the late grandmother who helped raise her in Winnipeg.

Rempel cried when she learned that the woman she knew as “Nan Nan” for 23 years will soon have her real name — Ruby Cora Webster — emblazoned on the building at St. Cloud State University that houses the departments of English, Political Science and Ethnic and Women’s Studies. A formal ceremony is slated for Oct. 15, re-christening the building to honor the school’s first black graduate in 1909.

“She was pretty humble, and would probably say, ‘Oh, no, you shouldn’t do that,’ ” said Rempel, 66. “But this recognition goes to a really amazing woman who was intelligent, artistic and scholarly. She’d read a history book like most people read paperbacks.”

Webster was born in Ohio in 1889. Her father, John Wesley Webster, was a former slave from Kentucky who moved to St. Cloud in 1888 to work as a hotel barber. He went on to operate a cloth-dyeing business in downtown St. Cloud while Ruby attended public school — graduating from St. Cloud High School in 1908. The next year, she received a one-year elementary education degree from what was then known as St. Cloud Normal School.

That’s the same year, 1909, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created in response to widespread lynchings of African-Americans.

“Lynchings were at their peak, and the period from the 1890s until 1917 is known by historians as the low point, the nadir, for African Americans dealing with legal segregation,” said Prof. Christopher Lehman, who leads the Ethnic Studies Department at St. Cloud and spearheaded the Webster Hall renaming drive.

“So for her to be able to attend college, let alone graduate at an otherwise ‘whites only’ school, was no small accomplishment,” Lehman said.

He began the push to honor Webster last year just as violence broke out at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — an event he says brought urgency to his campaign to honor St. Cloud’s black history.

About a decade ago, St. Cloud State’s Herberger School of Business moved to Centennial Hall — leaving its old building known simply as Building 51.

A school archivist had told Lehman how Webster broke St. Cloud State’s color barrier, so he launched a petition drive that quickly picked up more than a thousand signatures.

Lehman said it was really a “no-brainer” because they weren’t removing anyone’s name from Building 51 — as was the case with U.S. war secretary and slavery proponent John Calhoun’s name being stripped from the lake now called Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis.

Ruby Cora Webster left Minnesota right after her graduation to take a teaching job in Kansas City. In the first of her three marriages, she wed Hardy Watts on June 12, 1912, in Jackson, Mo. In the 1920 census, both Ruby and Hardy are listed as “mulatto.” He worked at the police station garage near Kansas City.

By then, Ruby had quit teaching — common practice for teachers who married in the era. Hardy and Ruby had a daughter, Donna, and a son who died in childhood. Her heartache worsened when a vehicle struck and killed Hardy as a pedestrian in a 1927.

Ruby moved to Canada, settling on the western edge of Winnipeg near her brother. She was fleeing racism in Kansas City, according to her granddaughter.

“My family, like a lot of older black families, was very private,” said Rempel, Donna’s daughter. “But my mother told me they experienced as much racial discrimination from the black community because of their lighter skin tone as from the white society.”

“She felt unwelcome,” Rempel said, which wasn’t an issue in Minnesota — a place about which her grandmother spoke fondly.

Ruby remarried and then divorced an abusive man before her third marriage later in life to a man named Reynolds. Rempel remembers her grandmother selling Avon products and living in a cottage adjacent to her family — where she, a lifelong smoker, would use a cigarette rolling machine.

She would also make tea sets from pottery and gave Rempel an oil painting in 1970 for a wedding gift, depicting a dark storm, with trees and rocks and water. Often, her watercolors included poetry.

“Her handwriting was as beautiful as her painting,” her granddaughter said. Ruby died at 84 in Canada in 1974 — 44 years before her name would grace a hall at her alma mater.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.