New Book Tells of Black Suffragist Who Fought for Racial Justice in Minnesota

The life of civil rights activist Nellie Francis is beautifully explored in Augsburg professor William Green’s new biography

Nellie Francis Book Cover

If you’re a Minnesotan and you haven’t heard of Nellie Francis, you should. Francis, a St. Paul Central High School graduate, racial justice advocate, fighter for women’s equality, incredible orator, and fiercely proud Black woman, comes to life in a new, strikingly relevant biography. Penned by Augsburg professor William D. Green, Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota explores her life in great detail, touching on the importance of family bonds, the Black community, and advocacy in the face of racism and sexism.

Francis (1874-1969) led the 1919 Women’s Suffrage Campaign in Minnesota. When white suffragists pushed to exclude colored women from the vote, she formed an African American suffragist group that helped win the battle for women’s voting rights in Minnesota. She also helped draft the state’s anti-lynching law. And she used her position as a strong orator, performer, and light-skinned Black woman to advocate for civil rights and racial equality on both a state and national level. The list goes on: Francis’ influence throughout Minnesota and the United States was extensive, and until now, it has not been widely recognized.

Green, who teaches history and critical race and ethnic studies, has previously published work on civil rights, the historical Black experience, and Minnesotan history. In the prologue, he emphasizes how much he admires and respects Francis, and he aims to do her justice in this retelling of her life and career.

The narrative begins with Francis’ exposure to the broader public, at her high school graduation in 1891. The then-17-year-old Francis spoke on racial inequalities to a predominantly white audience, in a speech titled “The Race Problem.” As the only Black graduate of her class, her message of equality and unity for people of all races echoed against the discrimination taking place in her city and state. Her speech, given at such a young age, reflected the fire and poise she brought to her advocacy throughout the rest of her life.

As Green notes, Francis “brought black and white women together even when she was discouraged to do so by the larger caucuses of both races. As considerable emotional expense, she was a woman with a mind of her own.”

Nellie Francis
The last known image of Nellie Francis, 1924.

Minnesota Historical Society

Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or just curious about this impressive Minnesotan woman, orator, and activist, Nellie Francis is a palatable choice rich with Green’s detailed descriptions and beautiful characterizations of Francis and her family. It reads effortlessly, with a careful balance between purposeful, real scene crafting and the raw struggle for racial justice.

Want to learn more about Nellie? She is memorialized at the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Memorial on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, along with 24 other women who advocated for Minnesota to ratify the 19th Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—in 1919.

Visit the book’s web page for more details.

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