Students move Nellie Stone Johnson statue closer to reality

A state Capitol statue of labor and civil rights leader Nellie Stone Johnson is moving closer to reality, thanks to a fundraising drive by students at the Minneapolis school named in her honor.

Students in Alex Lange’s fifth grade class at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in north Minneapolis conducted a “Nickels for Nellie” campaign, collecting $512.63. On June 1, they presented a check for that amount to Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, and other advocating for a statue.

“You guys have done a fantastic job!” Mullery told the students as he accepted the check alongside Julia Nelson, a great-niece of Nellie Stone Johnson.

Starting in 1997, Mullery spearheaded the effort to pass legislation to install a memorial to Stone Johnson at the state Capitol. Lawmakers finally approved the measure in 2014.

Originally advocates hoped to raise enough money for a bust of Stone Johnson, but fundraising exceeded expectations and now a statue is planned. It will be located in a prominent spot – one of four alcoves off the Capitol’s rotunda. It will be viewed by the hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and others who tour the building every year.

More than $95,000 has been collected so far, said Louise Sundin, a member of the board for the Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship, which honors the civil rights leader’s support of education.

“We need about $110,000 total” for the statue, Sundin said. “We are looking for another $15,000.”

When installed, the Stone Johnson statue will make history. It will be the first memorial in the Capitol honoring a woman; the first honoring an African-American; and the first honoring a labor union leader.

Although she died in 2002, Nellie Stone Johnson continues to inspire people, such as the students at the Minneapolis school.

Born in 1905 in Lakeville, Minn., she grew up on a dairy farm near Hinckley. Her activism began in her teens when she handed out fliers with her father, a member of the Nonpartisan League.

One of her first jobs was at the exclusive (all white – all male) Minneapolis Athletic Club. When the club’s Board of Directors decided to cut employees’ wages, Stone Johnson responded by organizing the workers into the Hotel & Restaurant Employees union. This was the start of a life-long commitment to working for labor rights and civil rights.

She proceeded to become the first woman in the union to serve on a national contract negotiations committee where she worked on a variety of issues, including pay equity.

In 1945, she was elected to the Minneapolis Library Board, becoming the first African-American to hold citywide office in the city. Her many other contributions include more than 60 years of activism with the NAACP and with the Democratic Party, where she was a confidant of Hubert H. Humphrey and other leaders.

Donations toward the statue, payable to “NSJ Capitol Fund,” may be sent to Union Bank and Trust, 312 Central Ave. NE., Minneapolis, MN 55414.

Learn more about Nellie Stone Johnson in this Workday special section.

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