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Churchwoman, suffragist, organizer, singer: The life of St. Paul’s Nellie Francis

Francis pressed the limits of what an African American woman was permitted to achieve in early twentieth-century Minnesota.

historical photo of nellie francis
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Nellie Francis, ca. 1924. Image is from Foster, Mary Dillon, Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women (1924), 111.
Nellie Francis pressed the limits of what an African American woman was permitted to achieve in early twentieth-century Minnesota. She was a churchwoman, clubwoman, suffragist, organizer, singer, civil rights worker, patriot, and wife to Minnesota’s first African American diplomat, William T. Francis.

Nellie Griswold was born in Nashville in 1874 and came to St. Paul with her family in 1885. In 1891 she was the only African American graduate of St. Paul High School (the predecessor of Central High School) and one of eight students invited to give a graduation speech.

Nellie chose as her topic “the race problem,” which she described as one that existed entirely in the minds of white Americans. They saw their black fellow citizens as somehow dangerous, when in fact they were just as hardworking, peaceful, and patriotic as anyone else. African Americans, she said, had recovered from slavery much faster than the Anglo-Saxons had risen to their preeminence. The St. Paul Pioneer Press judged her speech the best of the eight, and it won enthusiastic applause from a large crowd.

Nellie was an accomplished singer — a contralto — and appeared in many events as a soloist and in ensembles, mostly at her church, Pilgrim Baptist. She often appeared there with another singer, William T. Francis. They married in 1893.

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Nellie worked for several years as a stenographer at the West Publishing Company, while her husband rose through the ranks at the Northern Pacific railway. In church she served for many years as teacher and superintendent of Pilgrim Baptist’s primary Sunday school and as president of its Aid Society; in 1909 she called on Andrew Carnegie at his New York residence and came away with $1100 for the church’s new organ. She ran the press office of National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, was president of Everywoman Suffrage Club in Minnesota, and served twice as a delegate to state suffrage conferences. Nellie met President Taft in the White House in 1909 and President Harding in 1921; she knew both Booker T. Washington and his great rival, W. E. B. DuBois.

In the mid-1910s, Nellie formed a singing group called the Folk Song Coterie, which performed exclusively African American music — in her view, the true American folk music. All the singers were black women from St. Paul. The Coterie performed often at patriotic events during World War I.

After the infamous lynchings of three black carnival workers in Duluth in 1920, the Minnesota legislature passed an anti-lynching statute. Nellie was credited with writing the related bill and played a major role in getting it through the legislature with near-unanimous support. She was probably the first African American woman to lobby the Minnesota Legislature.

In 1924, Nellie and William contracted to buy a house in an all-white part of St. Paul, at 2092 Sargent Avenue. In response, neighbors organized the Cretin Improvement Association, held noisy demonstrations, burned a cross on the house’s lawn, and offered the Francises a thousand dollars not to move in. They moved in anyway.

In 1927, President Coolidge named William U.S. Minister and Consul to Liberia. The couple moved to Monrovia in November of that year. To the roles of singer, fundraiser, organizer, and political activist, Nellie added that of diplomat’s wife.

It was not an easy assignment—Monrovia was a village with a sweltering climate, no paved streets or sewage system, and deep political intrigue. After eighteen months on duty, Nellie and her husband were scheduled for a sixty-day leave in the United States when tragedy struck. William fell ill in June of 1929, and after four weeks of intense suffering died of yellow fever on July 15. The ship he had booked to take them home on leave instead carried his body and his widow to New York.

After a brief stop in St. Paul for services, Nellie returned to Nashville to live with and care for her 100-year-old grandmother, Nellie Seay. Years later she took a job as a secretary at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University, in Nashville.

Nellie died in 1969 and is buried next to her husband in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery. The Woman Suffrage Memorial Garden on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol recognizes her efforts to secure voting rights for women.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.