To Nellie Stone Johnson, Unions and Education Were the Path to Economic Security for African Americans

By Beer, Tom | MinnPost.com, April 10, 2017 | Go to article overview

To Nellie Stone Johnson, Unions and Education Were the Path to Economic Security for African Americans


Beer, Tom, MinnPost.com


Nellie Stone Johnson was an African American union and civil rights leader whose career spanned the class-conscious politics of the 1930s and the liberal reforms of the Minnesota DFL Party. She believed unions and education were paths to economic security for African Americans, including women. Her self-reliant personality and pragmatic politics sustained her long and active life.

Born in 1905 to Dakota County farmers who stressed religious and racial tolerance, Johnson absorbed lessons about organizing at a young age. Her father was a Nonpartisan League member who rallied Pine County farmers to join cooperatives and elect insurgent candidates to office. Milk and potato prices, Johnson learned, were set in far off Minneapolis. The dairy and electric cooperatives her father promoted helped increase farm income.

After moving to Minneapolis to finish high school, Johnson was hired as an elevator operator by the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1924. There, and at the West Hotel, she experienced workplace discrimination and faced anti-union employers. She believed the worst discrimination was economic, but trusted that organizing and collective bargaining could improve a worker's lot.

Johnson met communists, radicals, and the itinerant socialist union organizer Swan Assarson in the 1920s while taking classes at the University of Minnesota. A radical himself who believed in a workers' society, Assarson mentored Johnson in organizing hotel workers. Johnson's father also encouraged her activism. Together, they delivered potatoes and rutabagas off his Pine County farm to worker kitchens during the 1934 Teamsters strike.

Minneapolis hotels and restaurants were not organized when the National Labor Relations Act emboldened workers to take action in 1935. The New Deal law changed the landscape in workplaces by protecting organizing and collective bargaining activities. It also motivated Johnson and African American leaders Anthony Cassius and Albert Allen Jr. to talk to union members and educate their co-workers in the city's downtown hotels.

Cassius led the Curtis Hotel workforce into Local #614 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. His leadership sparked organizing at other hotel worksites. Allen championed efforts at the Athletic Club, where Johnson and white co-worker George Naumoff soon organized all the shifts. Local #665 of the Hotel Employees Union was quickly chartered at the Athletic Club as an integrated union. …

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