Minnesota Woman of History: Nellie Francis

In the introduction to a new biography of Nellie Griswold Francis, author William D. Green points out: “She seemed to understand at an early age the disarming — even disorienting — effect she had on white people because she was Black, and refined, pretty, intelligent, articulate, and white-looking, and she used it all to openly promote the interests of her people. She must have recognized that white people wondered why she didn’t make her life easier by simply passing for white.”

Nellie Francis convinced Andrew Carnegie in New York City to donate money for a church organ to the Pillsbury Baptist church in St. Paul. She had a private visit with President William Howard Taft. She worked alongside Clara Ueland to pass women’s suffrage in this state. She was a significant author and lobbyist of the state’s anti-lynching law that passed the Minnesota legislature in 1920 — after three young men in Duluth were lynched.

Yet Francis also knew that accomplishments as a Black woman in Minnesota were often hollow victories. Green’s book gets in-depth into the context of the times — which offers historical weight to the issues we still face today.

Racial Identity

As Green writes, Francis was at home as a racially mixed person in both white and Black communities. She did not compromise her identity as an “Afro-American” — the term used by many Black people at the time. She inherited a sense of clarity from her grandmother, “born in antebellum Tennessee from parents who were master and slave, and she was nurtured by strong parents both listed by census takers as ‘mulattos’ — an imprecise label for light-skin African Americans. Her parents grounded her within a stable, close-knit family, and she was mentored by an aunt who remained in the South to be active in education, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Nellie was, in short, imbued with the spirit of generations of strong women.”

Nellie Griswold in 1891 while a student at St. Paul High School. (Photo Minnesota Historical Society)

At age 17, Francis was one of eight speakers — and the only Black graduate —at the 1891 St. Paul High School commencement ceremony.

Green quoted Lorenz Graham, whose mother attended the school (later known as Central) during that time: “You must understand that Negroes, as they were called at the time, and Indians were not encouraged to go to school. At Central High, faculty people advised Black boys and girls to drop out. If they did not drop out voluntarily, they were given low grades and severe discipline by which they were literally forced out.”

Estyr Peake, a Black student who graduated there in 1928, was eventually a newspaper writer in the Twin Cities. Green says she reported being discouraged by counselors from taking typing and bookkeeping. They told her to take home economics because they thought she would likely become a cook or maid. She took business classes despite their words. Although she typed 75 words a minute, and took shorthand at 175 words per minute, she was the only student who was not placed in a job by her typing teachers.

The title of the commencement address Nellie Griswold delivered in 1891 was “The Race Problem.” The Pioneer Press reported that she described the former condition of the Afro-American as “less favored in his surroundings than the domestic animals on his master’s plantation.”

The teenager said that she did not see why the white American derived its sense of superiority that denied equal citizenship. She noted that the problem of race was in the white man’s mind, because, in essence, Black people were strong patriots.

“He aims no deadly blows at the welfare of our government, not does he attempt the overthrow of our laws. He is no anarchist, no socialist, but thoroughly American, patriotic and law-abiding. … When the Negroes are given equal rights and chances the race problem will solve itself. Let color be forgotten, and merit be the standard, and the race problem will disappear as mist before the rising sun.”

Local newspapers reported that the audience loved her speech. “It seemed as if the audience would never [stop] clapping.”

Four years later, only blocks away, Black men on two occasions were nearly lynched, Green reports.

Green also writes about the massacre on September 22, 1906, when about 10,000 white people beat and murdered “every Black person they found on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. The mob burst into the post office, train station, and all white-owned businesses, seeking out every Black employee they could find. Black passengers were dragged from trolley cars and beaten to death.”

In 1906, crimes by Black people that inspired attacks by mobs included “carrying a pistol, theft of calf, theft of $1, and disorderly conduct.”

At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and Billy Francis were among those who had speaking platforms, but said nothing publicly about the attacks and murders. Green describes the approach by some as an “accommodation” philosophy.

Non-Accommodationist Women

Eventually, Nellie Francis became acquainted with Mary Church Terrell, a national figure who was elected a charter member of the NAACP at the suggestion of W.E. B. DuBois and was a strong advocate of Black women in the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

At the Minneapolis Convention of Women in 1900, Terrell visited from D.C. to address the crowd about the prejudice and lack of sympathy on the part of white women who did not do more to use privilege to secure better education, employment, and political equity for fellow Black suffragists.

This was at the time that Ida B. Wells-Barnett was standing up against anti-lynching, contesting the claims by some that these mob murders were a legitimate response to Black men’s alleged attacks on white women.

The president of the Missouri Press Association had declared that “Black women’s immorality cause Black men to attack virginal white women,” and that “Black women are wholly devoid of morality — the women are prostitutes and all [are] natural thieves and liars.”

Margaret James Murray Washington — third wife of Booker T. Washington — did not adhere to the accommodation principle. In 1920, she spoke to the Commission of Interracial Cooperation in Memphis, noting that Black women had endured centuries of inadequate education. She pointed out it was unfair to expect all Black women to be on the same social plane as most white women — but all sought better schools, homes, and protection in their communities.

Washington asked white supporters to join in the crusade for longer school terms, equal facilities, and appropriate supplies for Black children. “Let us realize that we are two separate races living in a country side-by-side, each equally responsible for the good citizenship of the country, and therefore each equally deserving of a fair chance and fair play in every way,” she said.

Green reports that Washington added: “We are going to keep right after you until you do give us this chance, until you do recognize that we must have this chance. If we are to be the law-abiding, well-balanced, well-educated citizens the South needs … if we are going to take our rightful place in the citizenship of this country … we must have it.”

In the early 1900s, Washington and a committee of Black women designed a course of study for public school curriculums that included multicultural books from other continents. She said the effort would need a systematic approach because “we are going to have to deal with white superintendents.”

Anticipating backlash that this was a replacement of white curriculum, Washington said: “We are not trying to displace any other literature or history, but trying to get all children of the country acquainted with the Negro.” She pointed out that students were reading “nothing except literature of the Caucasian race. We are not fighting any race, we are simply looking [out] for our own.”

Examples of Deconstruction

As an NAACP member, Nellie Francis worked with her husband, an attorney, to draft an ordinance in 1915 for the St. Paul city council to ban “The Birth of a Nation” from showing in St. Paul. The film glorified the concept of Black people as villains, who could be killed by Klansmen, in order to deliver a peaceful union of liberty for North and South under the Christian image of Jesus. It was a symbol for the death of the Reconstruction era that was to have followed the Civil War.

The movie played at the Shubert Theater in Minneapolis.

In denouncing the movie, Billy Francis rose to non-accommodation status with a public speech before a group of prominent white men at the Men’s Club. He said that the Black man who suffers becomes noticed as “the notorious Negro and the jail bird. This kind of Negro attracts your attention, but as fast as a Negro rises out of that class he disappears from your field of vision, for as the Negro rises higher to intellectual and industrial levels in most of the sections of this country he is by segregation pushed out of your lives and denied the right to compete with the white man.”

Nellie Francis had given him the final draft of his remarks, after researching the data he would use to illustrate the progress of Black Minnesota in property and home ownership, education and employment, in the burgeoning middle class.

In Fall 1924, Nellie and Billy Francis moved to a larger house in the Macalester neighborhood of St. Paul. The Cretin Improvement Association organized against them moving to the all-white area. A cross was burned on their lawn. A month later, 200 people marched though with noise-makers. The man who sold the house to them was the target of flares lit in front of his home. The president of the association offered them $1,000 to give up the home. A second cross was burned in their yard with the warning: “The Ku Klux Klan never burns more than two of these warning crosses.”

None of the powerful friends of the Francis couple from their decades in government and civic engagement spoke out in their defense.

Similar attacks occurred around the state, including to immigrants such as a German-American family in Lester Prairie.

It was with relief that the Francis family left Minnesota in 1927 to take an ambassadorship post in Liberia.

After Billy Francis died of yellow fever in 1929, Francis — at age 53 — settled in Tennessee, where she took care of her grandmother, who lived to be 117. Francis was largely impoverished, working in housecleaning and as a secretary. She died in Nashville at age 97 in 1969.

Related Resources

“Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota,” by William D. Green, 2020 (University of Minnesota Press)

MNopedia biography about Nellie Francis

“Nellie Griswold Francis: The Vicissitudes of Activism for Women and Race,” article by William D. Green, published by Minnesota History magazine