Finding 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”. 

Finding Nellie Francis

By Rachel A. Neiwert | Winter 2021  

The piece below was written for the playbill for the History Theatre performance of Not in Our Neighborhood!

Over the last two years, I have been working in physical and digital archives to learn more about the stories of housing inequality and racism in Ramsey County as part of St. Kate’s research collaboration with the Mapping Prejudice Project, called “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” One of the stories that stands out to me is the story of Nellie Francis for two reasons. First, her story is about the neighborhood where I work. According to the map app on my phone, her house on Sargent Ave is a mere eight-minute walk from my office at. St. Kate’s. That means the cross burnings, harassment, violence, and racism that form the contours of the story aren’t just stories of other places; they are the stories of this place. Second, at St. Kate’s, our vision is “to educate women to lead and influence.” Nellie Francis was someone engaged in both leading and influencing her community from a very young age. Her efforts to bridge the white and African American women’s suffrage organizations offer a powerful model of how differences can be bridged and compromises might be forged. (To learn more about her suffrage work, check out the recent documentary, Citizen.)

The most striking feature of the newspaper stories describing the events on Sargent Ave starting in the fall of 1924 is the relative absence of Nellie Francis. The very first article that my students found came from the November 15, 1924 issue of the St. Paul Dispatch. The article reported that “W. T. Francis…moved in….” Though short, William Francis is mentioned five times. There is no mention of Nellie Francis at all; she is erased from the story. In 1924, property was still largely imagined to be the world of men, so I suppose it should not be surprising that she is not mentioned. Her omission still startles me though and it is not in this one article only. She was consistently left out of the stories. 

I am glad that this play centers Nellie Francis in the story again. In April of 1925, Nellie Francis wrote to W.E.B. Dubois, on her personalized letterhead from Sargent Avenue, noting “all the segregation orgy thro which we had been passing for the three months prior.” This passing comment is the only reference I have found so far in Nellie Francis’s own voice concerning the events on Sargent Avenue. It speaks to her pain and the hysteria surrounding her house in the form of her white neighbors. All these months looking at newspapers have convinced me that the history of St. Paul is about white people claiming neighborhoods for white people, leaving Black St. Paulites with fewer and fewer opportunities to find homes. Just like the newspapers in 1924 left Nellie Francis out of the story, I think white people, like myself, can be inclined to leave this history of housing and racism out of our stories too. Leaving it out won’t change the past or the present. The only way through is learning about, remembering and reclaiming a different story; one that includes Nellie Francis and her home on Sargent Ave.
Historian William H. Green’s recent biography of Nellie Francis, Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota, is the best place to start to learn more about Nellie Francis.