The lone Black student among 84 graduates from St. Paul Central High School's Class of 1891, Nellie Griswold rose to deliver a commencement speech titled "The Race Problem."
Never mind that this was 130 years ago and the speaker was only 16, addressing the crowded, spacious People's Church auditorium. Nellie spoke "with a clear, silvery musical voice, soft, yet perfectly distinct and supplemented with faultless enunciation," the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. The St. Paul Globe called it "a remarkable oration" delivered "with great spirit and feeling in a clear, low-pitched voice."
Sharing her first name with a grandmother born into slavery, Nellie Griswold told the largely white audience that her ancestors were "less favored … than the domestic animals" on their masters' plantations. When Black citizens "are given equal rights and chances," she insisted, "the race problem will solve itself. Let color be forgotten, and merit be the standard, and the race problem will disappear as mist before the rising sun."
Thunderous applause followed her words, and Nellie was on her way. In years to come she would achieve victories as a suffragist and social justice champion, but she would also endure galling displays of racism. Thirty years after her speech, she successfully lobbied Minnesota lawmakers to enact the state's first anti-lynching legislation, amid the fallout from three Black circus workers hanged from a Duluth lamppost by a mob in 1920.
Nellie watched crosses burned on her front lawn when in 1924 she and her husband, railroad lawyer William Francis, moved from the Rondo neighborhood to 2092 Sargent Av. near Groveland Park, a whiter section of St. Paul. They left Minnesota for good in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge named Billy (as she called him) consul general to Liberia, where he would die of yellow fever two years later.
Nellie Griswold Francis' amazing 95-year life long has been eclipsed by Billy Francis' equally remarkable story. Now Augsburg University history Prof. William D. Green has written a book that puts Nellie front and center. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, "Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women's Equality in Minnesota," comes out this week (tinyurl.com/Nelliebook).
"Often when she is mentioned in histories, her story is woven within, and more often subsumed, within her notable marriage" and her husband's legacy, Green writes. "While I feel that their marriage was and remains an extraordinary subject of exceptional people … it is a singular treatment of Nellie Francis that I feel is long overdue."
Born in 1874 in Nashville, Nellie Griswold was the second daughter of Maggie and Thomas Griswold. Her maternal grandmother, Nellie Seay, was enslaved in the home of Col. Robert Allen, a Tennessee congressman who was also her father. After the Civil War, Thomas became a successful merchant, Nashville City Council member and secretary of the city's first Black cemetery.
But he gave up his respected place in Nashville to move the family in 1884 to St. Paul, where his daughters would benefit from integrated schools. They relocated at a time when Minnesota's Black population was growing sixfold, from 490 in 1880 to 3,150 by 1910.
The former City Council member went to work as a hotel waiter in White Bear Lake and a railroad porter, and was waiting tables when Nellie delivered her graduation remarks. But when he died in 1899, family members found a folded newspaper clipping about Nellie's speech among his things.
Nellie declined scholarship offers from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota School of Drama, going to work instead as a stenographer for lawbook publisher West Publishing.
Nellie was 13 when she first met Billy Francis, who was singing in a quartet at a birthday party. He was 18 and working his way up at the Northern Pacific Railway, where he started as a messenger before rising to office clerk and then legal stenographer. Nellie and Billy wed in 1893, launching a marriage that would last 36 years.
Nellie's activism led her to the presidency of the Minnesota Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and a board position on the local NAACP. She founded the Everywoman Suffrage Club in St. Paul, stating that suffragists were "modern abolitionists" who "must include black women as well as white" to win over "sympathizers who would otherwise have been indifferent to its success."
The Francises became what Green calls "the golden couple" of Black St. Paul society, combining "elegance and charm and celebrity and their commitment to the advancement of their people … [B]lack Minnesota's best and brightest."
In 1921, St. Paul's Black community honored Nellie at her Pilgrim Baptist Church, awarding her a silver loving cup for her role in passing anti-lynching legislation.
"Failure was in your path," emcee Charles Miller said of her to the assembled, "but you met it face to face … [and] grasped the opportunity to protect the race."
New book profiles Black activist
What: The University of Minnesota Press releases a new book this week on Nellie Griswold Francis (1874-1969), a pivotal Minnesota suffragist and social justice champion.
Author: Augsburg University Prof. William D. Green, who has written several acclaimed books on Minnesota Black history.
For more information: upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/nellie-francis
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.