Nellie Francis: A woman of justice, service, and equality

Black History Month is coming to a close, and Women’s History Month is about to begin. As a book review editor, it is only fitting that this post covers someone who stood at the intersection of both. In light of recent events, people may look at Minnesota in a certain way. However, despite the small minority population, African Americans made history here, when that population was even smaller.

That being said, I am indeed honored to share my review of Dr. William Green’s biography, Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota:

Indeed, there are many stories and history that need to be heard and shared. Growing up in the Twin Cities as a child in the 1950s and 1960s in school, I never would have heard of the contributions African Americans made in Minnesota’s history. Fortunately, authors such as Dr. William Green have given us a gift with his biography of Nellie Griswold Francis.

Born in 1874 in the Reconstruction world of Nashville, Tennessee, Nellie and her sister Lula were children of parents that strongly believed in public service, such as the establishment of the first African American high school in Nashville, the drive for equitable opportunities for Black schoolchildren, and a cemetery for the Black soldiers and the community at a time when racism’s ugly head roared. That spirit of service and desire of a better life for her community was instilled in Nellie and Lula at a young age by their father, Thomas Griswold.

The family relocated to St. Paul in 1883. At her commencement ceremony from St. Paul Central High School in 1891, Nellie gave a stirring speech, a portent of what this 17-year-old girl would become. A light-skinned woman who could pass for white but identified as Black, Nellie’s future would be one of public service and complexity despite the conventions placed upon a woman of her time.

In 1893, she married William “Billy” Francis. Their union brought the couple interacting with notables such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and Hallie Q. Brown. Billy was an ardent follower of Washington’s accommodationist policies, never speaking out against the overt racism occurring in other parts of the country; he would change his position years later, after Washington’s death in 1915. Ambitious, Billy would become a lawyer and run for public office, with Nellie by his side. In the course of time, they would become the power couple in St. Paul’s Black community and part of the history of Pilgrim Baptist Church.

Though they were profiled by the Black press of the time (The Appeal and the Twin City Star), people who saw her “privilege” never saw her heartache when she and her husband were at odds over their respective views on racial justice, or her pain over their childless marriage and her mother Maggie’s poor health.

For Nellie, her work so often did not garner the recognition it richly deserved as an officer of the Minnesota Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and the Everywoman Suffrage Club, nor that many speeches Billy gave were written by Nellie. Her particular skill set was invaluable during her audience with President William H. Taft. When it came to securing the funds for Pilgrim Baptist Church’s pipe organ, it was she who obtained the balance through an audience with philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. And with the Rondo community being small as it was, jealousies from within it were frustrating.

And yet, she was active in women’s suffrage and addressing the duplicity of white suffragists as it pertained to race, not only leading to the passing of the 19th Amendment, but her crowning achievement in public service: being the author of Minnesota’s anti-lynching law, a law that has yet to reach the federal level to date.

Thank you, Dr. Green, for your intense, in-depth study of this complex woman, her accomplishments, and the milieu of African Americans in Minnesota during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If we don’t share these stories, who will?

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