“I’ve always been preaching a simple message, jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Nellie Stone Johnson, “For many, the state is no longer the land of 10,000 dreams,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 26, 1992
Nellie Stone Johnson became a fearless labor organizer and activist when she was a teenager. While working at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, Johnson risked getting fired when she recruited for her local chapter of the Hotel Employees Union. She was active in the NAACP and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). With the CRC in Texas, Johnson raised money to help Black voters there pay poll taxes, which were designed to keep Black citizens from voting by requiring payment.
In her many union leadership positions, including as the first Black person and first woman vice president of the Minnesota Culinary Council, Johnson advanced workers’ rights and pioneered negotiating equal pay for women. Johnson was a founder of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and became the first Black official elected to citywide office in Minneapolis when she won a seat on the library board in 1945.
Johnson opened Nellie’s Zipper and Shirt Repair in 1963. Even as a small business owner, Johnson remained politically active. After opening her alterations shop, she ran Van White’s successful city council campaign, traveled to Africa for the US State Department with Vice President Walter Mondale, and served on the Democratic National Committee.
Nellie Stone, 1943. Courtesy Hennepin County Library. This photo accompanied a newspaper interview in which Stone was asked about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s civil rights policies.
Meeting notice, about 1939. MNHS collections. Johnson helped raise money for striking workers as a speaker at the 22nd Anniversary Lenin Memorial Meeting.
NAACP office, about 1954. MNHS collections. Johnson (right) with her NAACP colleagues. At the group’s center is Daisy Bates, known for organizing the “Little Rock Nine” — Black students who enrolled at all-white Central High School in Little Rock, AR.
NAACP 40th Annual Conference voting delegate card, 1949. MNHS collections. Johnson was elected by the Minneapolis NAACP to serve as a voting delegate at the NAACP 40th annual conference.
Nellie Stone Johnson at Nellie’s Shirt and Zipper Repair, Minneapolis, 1980. MNHS collections. Johnson opened her own small business, Nellie’s Shirt and Zipper Repair, in 1963. She put in long hours and took great pride in her work.
Sewing machine used by Nellie Stone Johnson, about 1963. MNHS collections. Johnson worked countless hours at this sewing machine as the owner of Nellie’s Zipper and Shirt Repair.
Minneapolis Library Board, 1945. Courtesy Hennepin County Library. Johnson enjoyed campaigning alongside Hubert Humphrey in 1945, when he ran for mayor of Minneapolis and she ran for the Minneapolis Library Board.
- Interview with Nellie Stone Johnson. Minnesota Black History Project, July 15, 1975.
- Interview with Nellie Stone Johnson. Our Gathering Places Oral History Project, July 28, 1998.
- Interview with Nellie Stone Johnson. Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project, November 17, 1981.