When former Minnesota Congressman Joe Mullery looked around the state capitol in 1997, he noticed that there were no statues of blacks, women, farmers, or union leaders.
Their absence didn’t reflect the people of Minnesota, Mullery recalled, and he knew his friend, civil rights activist Nellie Stone Johnson, would make a great candidate for first place. As a champion of so many important issues throughout her life — work, education, agriculture and politics — she represents them all, he said.
After more than 20 years of fundraising, community leaders unveiled the statue of the “Woman of the Century” at the Capitol on Monday.
It is the first statue placed in the Capitol in more than 60 years and the first statue or bust of a woman or person of color, Lt. gov. Peggy Flanagan of the crowd. Designed by Minnesota sculptor Tim Cleary, it is also the first statue of a black woman authorized by federal action in one of the state’s capitol buildings in the nation, Flanagan said.
Political leaders, family members, educators and union leaders filled the Capitol Rotunda on Monday. Many of them had known Johnson well before her death in 2002. Eleven students from the Minneapolis public school named in her honor listened as speakers spoke about the importance of education and hard work.
Many people can point to problems in our society, but Johnson was a doer, said former Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III. His father, Hubert H. Humphrey, was a close friend of Johnson’s who influenced his civil rights struggle.
“She helped move this state and this nation forward,” Humphrey said.
An advocate for education, Johnson was the first black woman elected to citywide office in Minneapolis when she won a seat on the library committee in 1945.
Born on a farm in 1905, Johnson worked as a hotel manager at the Minneapolis Athletic Club during the Great Depression and risked being fired while recruiting for the union. She became the first female vice president of the Minnesota Culinary Council and the first female vice president of the Local 665 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. She also helped found the Democratic Farm Labor Party.
Flanagan said Johnson was a close friend of her grandmother. Johnson owned a clothing repair business, and the lieutenant governor’s mother, who died Friday, took her to Johnson’s after school for help mending clothes.
“She knew Nellie as an organizer but also as my grandmother’s dear friend who taught her so much,” Flanagan said.
Johnson died at the age of 96 after more than 70 years of service to others. Now students from across the state can read about her life by visiting her statue in the Capitol’s north portico, Mullery said.
“I would say she is the embodiment of what a good citizen can achieve,” Mullery said. “Nearly all Minnesotans, no matter what their goal, can identify with her and strive to help others.”