More than a million people turned out 50 years ago, many with blankets to blunt the 38-degree chill in Washington, D.C. They’d come to watch the inauguration of President Lyndon Johnson — sworn in for a full term less than 14 months after being thrust into the job by John Kennedy’s assassination.
Among the special guests at the January 1965 ceremony: auto giant Henry Ford II, the Rev. Billy Graham, and an 80-year-old woman from Minneapolis.
Hubert Humphrey, who became vice president that day, invited Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota’s first black woman lawyer and the feisty leader of the Minneapolis NAACP branch in the 1930s.
Smith would die the year after LBJ’s inauguration, but likely smiled on that crisp day when LBJ told the multitudes in his Texas drawl, “There is world enough for all to seek their happiness in their own way.”
Smith followed her own way all right, zigzagging to her lofty perch as a legal pioneer.
“She was a pretty radical agitator and activist, not a retreater, when many members of her community didn’t want to stir things up or rock the boat,” said Ann Juergens, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who has researched and written extensively about Smith.
Born in 1885 in Lawrence, Kan., Smith was the oldest of five children. At 20, she moved with her father to Buxton, Iowa, a coal-mining town, where she worked in the company store. When her dad died from heart failure in 1906, Smith moved north to Minneapolis with her mother and younger siblings, aged 4 to 14, and became the breadwinner.
She tried her hand at embalming, hair care, cosmetology and store clerking. Next was real estate, an occupation that included few women — let alone black women. The Appeal, a local black newspaper, reported in 1920 that Minneapolis was among the only cities in the country that “can boast of [having] a lady real estate dealer … in the person of Miss L.O. Smith.”
Many of Smith’s clients, regular folks who couldn’t afford steep legal fees, faced severe restrictions limiting where they could buy homes.
Prompted by the injustices she witnessed in real estate, Smith started attending law school at night in 1916 at the Northwestern College of Law — a William Mitchell precursor.
Nearly 40 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat toward the front of an Alabama bus in 1955, Smith and four black men tried to sit in the white section of the Pantages Theatre in 1916. When barred and pointed to the balcony, Smith sued for $1,500. She lost her case, but the theater changed its segregated seating policy.
Smith joined the NAACP in 1920 and graduated from law school in 1921 — becoming one of only a handful of black women lawyers in the country. Within a dozen days of being sworn in to the bar, Smith sued white landlords who had accepted contract-for-deed payments for 25 years for a house at 2417 Fifth Av. S. in Minneapolis.
Smith represented the aging black couple who’d made the payments but were rebuffed from taking possession of the home when the landlords claimed the payments were simply rent.
A jury awarded John and Mary Parkinson the title to the house and Smith was on her way. She became the NAACP’s leading legal adviser in the 1920s and took over as president of the Minneapolis branch in the 1930s — helping found the city’s Urban League chapter at the same time.
“She’s a lens through which Minnesota’s deep history of white supremacy and northern racism can be studied,” Juergens said. “Our laws were better than those in the South, but her story reminds us of the deep segregation and race-related terror in the North.”
Many problems that Smith fought against, such as police misconduct, remain in headlines nearly 50 years after her death. In 1937, two off-duty white policemen beat a black waiter named Curtis Jordan with fists and flashlights. His offense? Resting his head on a north Minneapolis cafe counter. Smith forged a settlement that included damages for Jordan and the cops’ transfer.
Few cases reaped much money for the tireless lawyer, who never married or shared life with a partner, perhaps because her energies were directed toward combating discrimination. She was still practicing law at 81 when she died.
In the early 1930s, a student interviewed Smith about her confrontational style during an era when many black residents preferred a quieter, more patient approach.
“Some of them were raised in the South and are used to catering to white men,” Lena Olive Smith said. “I’m from the West and fearless. I’m used to doing the right thing without regard for myself. Of course, battles leave their scars, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I think it is my duty.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.