With $3.5 million assigned to preserve "rare," one-of-a-kind art during major renovations of the State Capitol, it's hard to ignore the irony.

Walk those lofty halls and, with few exceptions, you'd reasonably conclude that only white men lived and led here, and most of them died 150 years ago.

Rare art? How about women? People of color, maybe?

That's about to change in a grand way, with a Capitol statue erected to honor labor and civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson, pending final fundraising.

Few Minnesotans are as worthy of a statue (or their face on a $20 bill, or maybe a Peace Prize of some sort) as Johnson, whose nearly 10 decades were filled with firsts and feats.

She was the first African-American elected to public office in Minneapolis, winning a seat on the library board in 1945. She was a leader in organized labor in the 1930s and 1940s and helped to found the DFL Party and desegregate the U.S. Army. She mentored Vice President Hubert Humphrey and traveled to Africa with Walter Mondale. She served on the Minnesota State University Board for eight years, working to recruit and retain students of color.

Johnson died in 2002 at age 96.

Her contributions certainly haven't gone unnoticed. Her life was featured in the 2013 play "Nellie" at History Theatre and in the book "Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist," by journalist David Brauer.

At Minneapolis' Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, students honor her memory with an emphasis on perseverance, said principal Amy Luehmann.

And the Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Program, founded in 1989, offers scholarships to minority students from union families.

Yet, a statue would be the ultimate thanks to a woman who gave so much to this state.

"There are no black women, no women at all" immortalized at the Capitol, said Frank Viggiano, a longtime friend of Johnson's and one of many pushing for a permanent artistic presence for her.

State Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, laughed in agreement. "There are so few busts, and they're mostly from the Civil War," said Mullery, who's been pushing this effort since 1997.

Mullery finally got traction in 2013, when he and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, co-authored a bill allotting $30,000 toward a bust of Johnson. Labor unions and other Johnson admirers raised the required $30,000 match, and more, mostly in $50 and $100 increments. Now the fund has reached $73,000.

With the total cost estimated at $100,000, supporters are spreading the word to others willing to help them reach their goal.

Inspired Nicollet Mall art

Interestingly, this isn't the first time the tireless public servant has been honored artistically.

Nearly 25 years ago, Minnesota artists Ta-coumba Aiken and Seitu Jones created "Shadows of Spirit," a public art commission of seven bronze shadows set into granite pavers on Minneapolis' Nicollet Mall. They remain on the mall today.

Each unnamed shadow, engraved with poetry by Soyini Guyton, honors a minority community member who contributed mightily to Minneapolis, yet was omitted from the pages of history.

"Nellie Stone Johnson was absolutely an inspiration," Jones said of the installation created in 1992. "She was a constant presence in the civil rights scene when I was growing up."

Johnson was a conundrum, too, Jones said, capable of being gracious, or abrupt — but always a presence.

"Shadows of Spirit," he said, encourages pedestrians "to stand in the shadows of folks who came before them."

Born and reared with six siblings on her family's dairy farm near Hinckley, Johnson learned early the importance of social activism. She handed out fliers as a teenager for her father, who served on the local school board.

Her mother and grandmother were teachers.

She earned a GED from the University of Minnesota and ran a popular alterations shop in Minneapolis for 30 years, not far from the bronze shadows.

Legacy as bridge-builder

Her affiliation with Communists and socialists in the 1930s and 1940s caused some to shut her out. But those groups "were the only people who would talk to blacks back then," Viggiano said.

Besides, he emphasized, her legacy is as a bridge-builder. "She enjoyed talking to people who were interested in politics, in change, in the big picture of society," he said. "Some of her best friends were Republicans. Nellie saw that as a challenge."

Viggiano met Johnson in 1986 when he was executive director of the Minnesota State University Student Association. Then 81-year-old Johnson was a member of the Minnesota State University Board (later named MnSCU), working to create better access to higher education for minority students.

They began to have monthly lunches to talk about bettering the world. "If I missed it, she'd call and say, 'You forget me?' "

If they didn't have time for a meal, coffee would do.

"She was tall, with big hands," he said. "She loved to put her arm around you and just lean on you a little bit."

She knew everybody. And she was a hoot.

"She liked the good things in life," Viggiano said. "She'd shop at Byerly's. She'd say, 'Frank, you can take me anywhere, but you know what I like.' " She was a sharp dresser and fully independent.

"Until she was 95, she was still taking the bus," he said. "I used to see her sometimes walking down Washington Avenue. 'Hi, Frank, I'm out and about.' "

It was sad for him to see some people push her away toward the end of her life. "They said she was living in the past. She really wasn't. She could see things in politics that a lot of people couldn't. Things weren't black and white to her."

While the original plan was to create a bust of Johnson, Rep. Mullery and Viggiano want to see a full-blown statue of their friend and stateswoman. And they want it placed inside the Capitol's North Hallway with its high traffic and buzz.

"Why would we want her outside where nobody will see her?" Viggiano said. "We want her inside with all the tour guides and student groups. They'd stop and explain who she was, and that would be great."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum