Labor, civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson dies

Nellie Stone Johnson, who broke new ground in every endeavor she undertook – politics, civil rights, union organizing – died April 2 at age 96. Her legacy lives on among the many people her work benefited: the hotel worker who is treated with respect and dignity on the job, the women and people of color who hold public office, the youngster who dreams of being anything she can be.

Services will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Breck School, 123 Ottawa Ave. N. in Golden Valley. Visitation will be Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Washburn-McReavy DuSchane Chapel, 4239 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, and one hour before the service at Breck.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and the secretary-treasurers of international unions, meeting in Minneapolis this week, observed a moment of silence in honor of Stone Johnson.

“She was an extraordinary woman,” Jaye Rykunyk, principal officer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 17, told the gathering. “We are really going to miss Nellie. We are so proud that she came out of our union.”

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron has known Stone Johnson for many decades. “Her roots were in the neighborhood and with the labor movement,” he said. Waldron called Stone Johnson a hero but noted that “she was just like you and I, someone you could talk to.”
Stone Johnson’s life took her from childhood on a Minnesota farm to the halls of power in Washington, where she was a confidante of Hubert H. Humphrey. She became the first African-American to hold citywide office in Minneapolis when she was elected to the Library Board in 1945.

In the 1930s, while working as an elevator operator at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, her wages were cut from $15.00 to $12.50 per week. She responded by secretly organizing the workers into a union. Later she was elected the fiirst woman vice president of the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.

Stone Johnson’s strong commitment to public education was honored in the last several years when the Minnesota State College and University System, in cooperation with the labor movement, created a scholarship in her honor, awarded annually to students of color. Last year, a Minneapolis elementary school was named for her.

Stone Johnson also was a longtime member of the Advisory Committee for the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday Minnesota.

Learn more about the life of Nellie Stone Johnson

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