Digging into history often sends researchers down unanticipated side tunnels. That’s where Minneapolis historian Katie Thornton met Nettie Hayes Sherman, a Black nightclub entertainer who ran a St. Paul speakeasy during the Depression and gangster eras of the 1930s.
Armed with a Minnesota Historical Society stipend, Thornton, 28, set out to make an audio documentary using the stories of individual women to link two major events that happened 100 years ago: the start of Prohibition and women winning the right to vote.
Seven months after booze was banned in January 1920, the Tennessee Legislature narrowly approved suffrage on Aug. 18, 1920, making it the necessary 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
As Thornton delved into how women’s early foray into the anti-alcohol temperance movement morphed into advocacy for voting rights, she stumbled upon Sherman’s oral history from 1974.
Sherman, then 74, said the first of her rights “was to able to vote. This is the cry ... to be recognized as an American citizen.”
That recorded snippet, tucked in the Historical Society’s digital archives, grabbed Thornton’s attention. For one thing, the thread connecting temperance and suffrage weaves mainly through upper-crust white women. Here was a Black piano singer who coveted the right to vote while making her early living off alcohol and whose friends ranged from gangster John Dillinger to jazz great Duke Ellington and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Pierce Butler, a former St. Paul attorney.
“Nettie so poignantly shows how complicated women’s roles, and Black women’s roles, were outside the mainstream temperance and suffrage movements,” said Thornton, whose 45-minute audio documentary is well worth a listen.
Called “A Brief History of Women in Bars: A Minnesota Story in Three Rounds,” you can listen for free on the KFAI website (tinyurl.com/Womeninbars). You don’t hear from Sherman until the final minutes of the documentary, but she steals the show like she often did.
Sherman was born in Kentucky in 1900; her mother was a Black maid and her father an Irish laborer. She was raised by a white family that employed her mother and sent her to parochial school and the Boston Conservatory of Music.
“We sat at the dinner table with the rest of the family,” she said in a Minneapolis Tribune profile in 1975, when her life was the subject of a local theatrical musical. Her foster father, an attorney who graduated from West Point, taught her: “Harbor a prejudice and you will retard a success.”
She was proud to be a child of interracial parents. In her oral history, she said some children of white and Black parents think “it makes a difference. It’s a stupid thing to say ... because every one of us is a mixture.”
She first moved to Minnesota in 1917, following her mother, and soon became an on-air talent at WLAG radio, the precursor to WCCO. She shared recipes on the air and performed as a radio actor.
A wealthy couple she had befriended set her up with her own club at 350 Cedar Street in St. Paul in the early 1930s, behind the St. Paul Athletic Club. “In those days, the Twin Cities were considered the ‘cities of the lam,’ ” she said, where organized crime figures from Chicago found safe harbor in speakeasies during Prohibition.
Sherman said she wished she had a penny for every dollar that Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson tossed her way. By 1937, she was off to Chicago and New York, eventually performing with Louie Armstrong, Fats Waller, Pearl Bailey and the Duke himself.
Her repertoire grew to thousands of songs, some of which she sang in Yiddish, Gaelic, French, German, Polish, Spanish and Arabic.
“She performed her songs with a conversational style, sometimes naming the listener in the lyrics and punctuating them with a raised eyebrow,” according to her Star and Tribune obituary after she died in 1986 of a stroke at age 85 in Rochester.
By then, she’d been married and widowed four times. Unable to have children of her own, she adopted three kids in her 60s. One daughter was Creole, another Irish and her son was Greek — all from troubled families, and two whose parents had been murdered. Adopting white babies, she said, raised the ire of Chicago welfare officials.
“When the welfare people were threatening me, I said: ‘OK, you do your best shot, then look out,’ ” she said, insisting she never accepted welfare or charity — working as a nurses’ aide and housekeeper when money was tight.
Sherman returned to Minnesota in 1974, singing, living and raising her children in Bloomington and Rochester.
“The only God I know is the one that is within me, and I believe that I am entitled to anything,” she said in 1974. “I don’t accept anybody’s suggestions or limitations.”
Nettie watched one of those limitations disappear 100 years ago when she and other women won the right to vote — a right she ranked above even fair employment and marriage equality.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.