This weekend marks the opening of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. But that’s not the only thing opening in St. Paul.
Nellie is the story of Nellie Stone Johnson, who was born in Minnesota in 1905 and became one of the state’s leading African-American activists of the 20th century, as well an influential advocate on the national stage. Throughout her lengthy life, she was a tireless advocate for workers’ rights and was involved in the merger of the Minnesota Democrat Party and the Farmer-Labor Party into the Minnesota DFL. She was the first black person to be elected to a citywide office in Minnesota when she was elected to the library board in 1945. Among her many connections was Hubert Humphrey, whom she advised regarding civil rights issues.
Playwright Hines was approached by the History Theatre in 2003 and asked if she’d be interested in the opportunity to write about Johnson. “I jumped at the idea because I’d met her in 1996,” says Hines. “I was working on a play about Hubert Humphrey.” Hines found Johnson to be a fascinating woman who even knew some of Hines’ family members. “Her networking would rival Facebook,” Hines says, laughing.
Johnson was active and involved all her life. Hines notes that her interest in everything gave her the ability to see connections in ways others couldn’t. “She got you thinking,” Hines says. “She didn’t have a college degree, but she hung out at the U of M, took classes, met people. She was the most educated non-educated person I ever dealt with. She was self-made in every sense of the phrase.”
What’s more, Hines notes that several years before her death in 2002, Johnson predicted that there was financial instability coming, and problems for unions, predictions that look very timely today.
Interest in the production has been strong, and people interested in seeing the play are advised to purchase tickets soon. The History Theatre has several events in conjunction with the performance, including a discussion about labor unions with Macalester history professor Peter Rachleff, Labor Parties benefitting the Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship, and a Discussion of Women in Labor Leadership, led by president of UNITE Local 17 Nancy Goldman. For a full list of events, see the History Theatre’s events page.
What else is happening in our state? Be sure to check out the 10 p.m. Tuesday night WCCO newscasts, where you can learn more in the weekly segment, Finding Minnesota.