Nellie Francis

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Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

Nellie Francis

By Anastasia Rousseau | Spring 2021

“Your children will reap the harvest of our solidarity — of our determination to stand together, to fight together, and, if needs be, to die together.” (1)

These words come from Nellie Griswold Francis, a leader during the women’s suffrage movement in the Twin Cities. As an advocate for equality for African-American people, Francis began her work during the women’s suffrage movement with the goal of uniting black and white suffragists through the organization of the Everywoman Suffrage Club, the only African-American suffrage organization in Minnesota. Francis was also credited with writing the Anti- Lynching bill, passed in 1921 after the lynching of three men in Duluth, Minnesota. Her many accomplishments were not enough to prevent an experience with racism when she and her husband, William T. Francis, a civil rights attorney, moved into a home in Ramsey county in an exclusively white St. Paul community.

Nellie and William Francis were the first African-American family to move into the Mac-Groveland neighborhood. On November 15, 1924, the St. Paul Dispatch reported that the Francis family had moved into the neighborhood, titling the article, “Negro Lawyer Moves In.” The home the Francis family moved into still stands today on Sargent Ave. Without a moment to waste, white community members began creating a fundraiser to compensate the Francis family’s moving expenses in an effort to buy them out of their home, if they agreed to leave the community. William Francis stayed determined to continue living in the neighborhood by taking the case to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). NAACP is quoted as saying, “”This is not a personal fight, but a race fight; if he loses, we lose.” (2). Community members, angry that the Francis family refused to leave, harassed them and participated in violent actions in hopes of forcing William and Nellie Francis to leave the community. Two crosses were burnt in their front yard, forcing Francis to ask for protection by the police department. Day and night, members of the community would play loud noise throughout the neighborhood representing the anger the community had against the infiltration of a black family in their white neighborhood.

With the support of the black community, the Francis family fought back. The Pilgrim Baptist Church wrote a letter to Mayor Arthur E. Nelson and Commissioner J. M. Clancy asked for the protection of Mr. Francis and his property rights. The St. Paul mayor experienced backlash for the lack of support given to the Francis family by the city. Though the mayor claimed to be doing everything in his power to protect the property rights of citizens of color in St. Paul, the NAACP replied that they had heard otherwise, specifically noting that the Francis Family reported “tense” situations.

In the end, the Francis family sold their home after Mr. Francis received an opportunity to become the U.S. consul and minister to Liberia. After a little more than a year of work, William Francis died. After his death, Nellie Francis returned to the United States, stopping briefly in St. Paul for her husband’s funeral, before taking his body to Nashville for burial. Nellie Francis died on December 13, 1969 with a legacy of advocacy for the black community.

This is one story of many black families who were confronted with racism when trying to move into white neighborhoods in St. Paul. Homeownership is essential in the black community. For decades, African Americans were in physical chains to the oppression of slavery, but even without the chains of slavery, black families have found it close to impossible to live a life of freedom and equality due to the legal restrictions placed against African Americans in transitioning from renters into homeowners. Homeownership is not only about owning a home, but accumulating wealth. Restrictions like racial covenants and the violence and harassment that William and Nellie Francis faced, made it nearly impossible for people of color to be a part of the wealth system. Today in Minnesota, approximately 75% of white families own the home they live in while only 25% of black families own their home making it the largest state of housing disparities (3). Nellie Francis, who advocated and worked to create a better state of Minnesota, was excluded from the community, not due to her financial income or respectability, but based on the color of her skin. Not only was she excluded from her neighborhood, but also excluded from the story as she is not mentioned in any newspaper story, essentially being erased from her own story because of gender norms around homeownership. Her story, and many others, inform us of important incidents in our history that have led to present housing disparities today.

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. Nellie Griswold francis. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2021, from
  2. The Northwestern Bulletin -Appeal. “Fight in Francis Case Taken Up by NAACP” December 6, 1924
  3. Sood, Aradhya and Speagle, William and Ehrman-Solberg, Kevin, Long Shadow of Racial Discrimination: Evidence from Housing Covenants of Minneapolis (September 30, 2019). Available at SSRN: or