Lena Olive Smith: Civil Rights in the 1930s

by Jackie Sluss

This article was originally published in Hennepin History Magazine, Winter 1995, Vol. 54, No. 1

Lena Olive Smith and client at Olive Hair Store, Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis

Lena Olive Smith and client at Olive Hair Store, Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display?irn=10777165

When thinking about the American civil rights movement, most of us focus on the 1960s. As the struggle during those years became entwined with the Vietnam antiwar movement, participation in the intellectual ferment of the times became for many Americans a right of passage, leaving an indelible mark on the way they defined themselves and their relationships to other Americans and the rest of the world. Civil rights issues came into homes on the six o’clock news and confronted everyone from the covers of Life and Time. But that movement, as some experienced it during the 1960s, is only a single episode in the long and continuing struggle for civil rights. The theme of civil rights, central to African-American history in the United States, is not isolated to the South but recurs across the country. The early career of Lena Olive Smith, an African-American woman accepted into the Minnesota bar in 1927, reflects civil rights work as it took shape during the Great Depression. In contrast to such work in the 1960s, the struggles of the earlier era were not buttressed by the images of television. The strange fruit of lynching was not consumed by the eyes of Americans as were the televised and printed images of the daily degradations of African-American life in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. Nor were large numbers of Americans concerned with the extension of civil rights to nonwhite America. The pursuit of civil rights, though no less an issue for African Americans during this period, was not of paramount importance to the larger society. With so many struggling to put bread on their own tables in the 1930s, African-American poverty looked like everyone else’s. The advancement of civil rights was the work of a few with the courage and vision to challenge die status quo of the times.

Lena Olive Smith came to Minneapolis in 1907 with her mother Geneva Smith, her sister Frances (who also earned a law degree but never practiced), and a brother, Prentis. When Lena Smith graduated from Northwestern College in Minneapolis and passed the Minnesota bar exam in 1927, she was one of nine black attorneys known to have practiced law in Minneapolis between 1890 and 1927. She was the only woman of her race to conduct a law practice in Minneapolis and St. Paul during the prewar period. Smith took on a partner, Stanley H. Roberts, in the late 1930s, but little is known of his work. Three other African-American attorneys in Minneapolis practiced during the same period: Brown S. Smith, Ray Cannon Jr., and Homer Cannon.

Lena Smith is considered one of the founding members of the Urban League in Minneapolis (1925),1 and she was elected the first woman president of the Minneapolis NAACP in 1932. In 1939, Lena O. Smith was listed in Who’s Who Among Women Lawyers. That same year she became head of the legal redress committee for the Minneapolis and St. Paul chapters of the NAACP and advised both chapters of the NAACP on legal issues. This committee would provide the impetus for increased participation of the NAACP in legal cases in the Twin Cities for years to come. Contemporaries2 remember her as the most aggressive and vocal civil rights lawyer of the time and one who had an especially keen sense of civil rights issues.

The early years of Smith’s practice reflect a commitment to civil rights issues during a difficult period for African Americans. Racial hatreds were fueled by a collapsed economy. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise.

When Lena Smith was admitted to the bar in 1927, the African-American population in Minneapolis (about 4,000 in 1930) had begun to come together in two main areas of the city: the near north side neighborhood that fanned out around a business and entertainment area along Lyndale and Sixth Avenue, and the south side area that centered around a business node at Fourth Avenue South and 38th Street. The Twin Cities, lacking an industrial-based economy, was never a major destination for African Americans leaving the South between the world wars, and the community in the area remained relatively small.

A 1926 Minneapolis Urban League report indicated that most blacks were employed as porters, waiters, and laborers. African-American professionals and businessmen of the period included a pharmacist, an undertaker, a few restaurant proprietors, and several barbers. Minneapolis had seven black lawyers, two physicians, and two dentists. A total of 32 African Americans worked for the postal service. The city also employed African Americans as firefighters and police officers.

Across the river in St. Paul, the population was roughly the same. The black community was beginning to coalesce into a racially mixed neighborhood of Russian Jews and Irish around Rondo Avenue (now Concordia) on either side of Dale Street. Like Minneapolis, most African Americans in St. Paul were employed as porters, waiters, maids, and laborers, while a smaller class of professionals offered legal, medical, and other services. A few blacks were employed by municipal police, fire, and park departments. Both communities were interconnected by a network of marriage and social ties.

Despite the small size of the African-American communities in the Twin Cities and the relative lack of racial tension, civil rights issues there were the same as elsewhere: equal protection by the law, equal access to public accommodations and higher education opportunity, segregated and substandard housing, discriminatory hiring and firing practices, and the public display of racially stereotyped mass media. Although Minnesota did not have a record of lynching, the 1920 hanging of three African-American men in Duluth made it an issue. The black community lobbied for an anti-lynching law that was passed by the state legislature the same year. It was the first in the nation.

Black and white society in the Twin Cities were not always, but they were frequently, segregated in 1930. Hotels, restaurants, and clubs in Minneapolis were generally segregated until the late 1930s, and African-American-owned restaurants, rooming houses, and private homes filled the gap. Neither Jews not African Americans practiced in the local hospitals; neither could interns from these groups complete their practicums in the area. Employment and housing discrimination was routine. Yet African Americans in the Twin Cities maintained a strong sense of community, revolving around extended families, black-owned churches, clubs, fraternal halls, and civil rights organizations.

A two story home with snow on the ground

Lena Olive Smith’s historic residence at 3905 Fifth Avenue South was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. The Palace Building, where Smith established her law office, no longer exists.

This African-American community, though it remained isolated from the larger metropolitan community, was not isolated from the mainstream of black intellectual thought during this period. The community was apprised of national and local current events by the local black press. The most widely read paper was Cecil Newman’s Minneapolis Spokesman and its St. Paul counterpart, the Recorder. These newspapers (in print since 1934), along with local African- American pulpits, kept the community abreast of the most important issues of the day. In addition to these forums for expression, race and interracial organizations invited many of the country’s foremost African-American thinkers and reformers to speak in their halls during the 1930s. The list included literary, intellectual, and political figures including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, George Schuyler, Elmer Anderson Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary M. Bethune, and George Washington Carver. Black labor organizer and former editor of the radical Harlem magazine The Messenger, A. Philip Randolph, visited the Twin Cities three times a year as he crisscrossed the country organizing Pullman porters into branches of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Keeping in step with the rest of the nation, St. Paul and Minneapolis had earlier established separate branches of the NAACP in 1913 and 1914 and the Urban League in 1923 and 1923. Both of these institutions became the preeminent civil rights organization until the 1960s, when the studied strategies of the NAACP and Urban League would combine with the Ghandian activism of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these organizations were racially integrated in the Twin Cities as elsewhere, reflecting a philosophy of integration and the need for funding sources outside the African-American community. Neither organization was fully developed in the Twin Cities until sometime between 1930 and 1940. This fruition can be related to the depression era and a period of increased poverty and racism as well as to the changing political climate. The social, political, and economic milieu of the time encouraged and warranted a stepped-up vigilance for civil rights. At the same time and at the other end of the spectrum, the enlightened views of Eleanor Roosevelt gave impetus to the notion of an integrated and egalitarian society.

Although local civil rights organizations in the Twin Cities did not coalesce but remained distinct entities during this period, the spirit of cooperation prevailed. Churches, the black press, the Urban League, and the NAACP were among the primary groups bringing civil rights issues of the 1930s and 1940s to the attention of their own as well as to the general public. These cooperating organizations took responsibility for the process of legal redress in local civil rights cases. And legal redress, the principal tactic of the NAACP, was the primary instrument for the advancement of civil rights during the period. (Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer when he argued Brown vs. the Board of Education before the Supreme Count in 1954.)

Lena Olive Smith was president of the Minneapolis NAACP from 1935 to 1939. She relinquished that position to become a member of the executive board and chair of the joint legal redress committee that combined the work of the Minneapolis and St. Paul NAACP chapters. As chair of the Twin City Legal Committee (the redress committee), Smith was a major impetus for a proactive posture in local courts. She represented the Minneapolis NAACP as early as 1931, when she took on the A. A. Lee case.

Lee, a postal worker, purchased a home in what was then an all-white neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The case drew much local attention when a crowd gathered in the area around 46th Street and Columbus Avenue. Coverage of the case (on page 15) in the July 20, 1931, Minneapolis Journal read: “All last week crowds of persons gathered in front of the Lee home in protest to his moving into the neighborhood. Stones were hurled and one night police were forced to drive the mob from the dooryard.”

Under the representation of another attorney, the Lee family was advised to sell their home to the neighborhood committee and leave the area. The Lee family chose to drop his counsel for that of Lena Smith, who encouraged the family to stay. She is quoted in the same article: “Mr. Lee will retain his home. He never agreed to sell the property, reports to the contrary not withstanding. As far as Mr. Lee is concerned, there will be no further negotiations with any committee of citizens . . . The police have agreed to give ample protection to the property. Mayor William A. Anderson and Chief William J. Meehan have been informed of Lee’s decision.’’

The Lee family, in fact, remained in their home for only a year or two. According to a family member, they were subjected to harassment and vandalism. Paint was splashed on the house and windows were broken. Strangers pounded on the doors. Even their dog was killed, despite the protection they received from African-American World War I veterans and fellow postal office employees. They slept in the basement until Mrs. Lee convinced her husband to move the family.

During this period many civil-rights-related events filled the pages of the local African-American press, but one— the “Scottsboro Boys’’ trial—captured the attention of the whole nation. It served as a rallying point for black activism across the United States, including the Twin Cities. Both local chapters of the NAACP followed the trial. The local black press gave considerable space to the trial and community activities related to it. In 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court returned the remaining Scottsboro cases to the Alabama courts for new trials. The International Labor Defense, a communist-oriented organization, called for the support of all civil rights organizations in the interest of the five young Scottsboro men accused of raping a white woman. A coalition including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Urban League, and others united under an umbrella organization called the Scottsboro Defense Committee.

The Minneapolis branch of the NAACP called for a mass meeting at the Phyllis Wheatley gymnasium to form such a coalition. Lena O. Smith, then president of the Minneapolis NAACP, presided at the meeting. A racially integrated crowd of 200 people attended the meeting, which adopted a resolution stating the intent of the coalition to focus attention on the proceedings of the Scottsboro trial. It was also resolved that copies of this resolution be sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to senators and congressmen, to the presiding Alabama judge, and to the mayor and city council of Minneapolis. Over a hundred dollars was collected for the defense fund. Smith’s coordination of this meeting reflects the organizational growth of the NAACP at the national and local level as well as Smith’s willingness to bring American thinking about race and rape to light.

Lena O. Smith handled other locally important civil rights cases during this period. In 1937, she initiated the investigation of the alleged beating of Curtis Jordan by two off-duty Minneapolis detectives. Twenty citizens, most of them eye-witnesses to the event, gathered in the office of inspector Fritz Ohman to hear testimony. Lena Smith, a local youth worker named John Thomas, and Minneapolis Spokesman editor Cecil Newman demanded suspension of the detectives. (The case was ultimately dismissed by a municipal judge.)

In 1939 Smith took a case concerning the Nicollet Hotel, where an African American was denied service at a mixed-race convention. Although the Nicollet Hotel alleged it did not have a policy of service discrimination, Smith pressed the point that the hotel was nonetheless responsible under the law for damages to her client. The court ordered the Nicollet Hotel to pay the plaintiff $25.00 in costs as well as legal fees estimated to be more than $300.00. The judge mused: “Whether [through] the exercise of its police power or by virtue of any power given by the state or federal constitution, the state has a right to compel restaurants, saloons, and other private lines of business to make no discrimination or selection of customers because of race or color is another question which has not been argued, and about which a lot might be said.” Nevertheless, Smith’s victory on this point seems remarkable for the period.

In 1940, Lena Olive Smith spearheaded the NAACP protest of the University of Minnesota’s showing of The Birth of a Nation, a popular Hollywood film that promoted negative stereotypes of African Americans, and she continued her career, an impressive one in the historical context of social activism in the Twin Cities’ African-American community, into the 1960s. As a black woman, Smith was an original in the field of law in the Twin Cities and no doubt, within the state.3 Her practice came of age during a period of important changes in African-American life. The years between 1920 and 1940 witnessed the maturation of major civil rights organizations including the NAACP, and Lena Smith’s proactive posture in the courts contributed to the development of the local chapters of the NAACP. Her early career witnessed a period of African-American history that included a renaissance of black art and literature and significant strides in the organization of the African-American labor force as well as the devastation of the Great Depression. Her work made her a champion of the major historical changes of her time.

Jackie Sluss researched a series of six nominations to the National Register of Historic Places related to African-American history in Minnesota in 1991. This article is based on that work, funded by the State Historic Preservation Office of the Minnesota Historical Society. At the time of the writing of this article, she was employed as a historian for BRW, Inc., an engineering firm in Minneapolis.


1. It is, of course, often difficult to enumerate the founding members of any organization as the literature often names several members meeting at different localities throughout the community. Nevertheless, two obituaries from reliable sources within the black community cite her as a founding member, one written by Lena’s sister, Frances Smith Brown, lor the Hennepin County Bar Association, and another published in the November 10, 1966, issue of The Spokesman.
2. Lena Smith has few living contemporaries, but oral interviews with prominent black labor leader and DFL activist Nellie Stone Johnson, as well as Hobart Mitchell Sr., who served in the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP with Smith, indicate she was the most aggressive civil rights lawyer of her time. A biography in Contributions of Black Women to Minnesota History cites Smith as an attorney whose “tireless efforts brought about many civil rights changes for Blacks during the 1930s and 1940s.” Memorial for Deceased Members of the Hennepin County Bar Association refers to Smith as the most “vocal, valiant and aggressive fighter for the civil rights of minorities in Minnesota” during the 1920s and 1930s. A review of the black press from 1934 to 1940 supports these views.
3. The biographical sketch in Contributions of Black Women to Minnesota History cites Smith as one of the first black attorneys in the state of Minnesota, and the memoriam in Memorial for Deceased Members of the Hennepin County Bar Association refers to her as one of the first three black women to be admitted to the general practice of law in the United States.


City directories. Minneapolis: 1929, 1925, 1930,and 1944.

Connelly, Bill (supervisor of Record Center for the 43rd Judicial District [Hennepin County] of the State of Minnesota). Personal interview, 1990.

Harris, Abram L. The Negro Population in Minneapolis: A Study of Race Relations. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Urban League and Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, (1926?).

Hennepin County Bar Association. Memorial of Deceased Members of the Hennepin County Bar Association. Minneapolis: Hennepin County Bar Association, 1967. “Lee to Keep Home, Attorney Vows.” Minneapolis Journal, July 20, 1931 (p. 15).

Minneapolis Spokesman. Review of issues August 1934-May 1940, including: “National Organizations Unite behind Defense for Menaced Scottsboro Boys,” January 24, 1936; “Audience of White and Colored People Hold Big Protest Meeting at Phyllis Wheatley,” January 31, 1936; “Brutal Attack by Mill City Police Stirs Entire City,” July 23, 1937; “L. O. Smith in Women Lawyers Who’s Who,” January 20, 1939; “Costs Hotel $300 to Refuse Man Glass of Beer,” October 13, 1939; “Lena O. Smith Attorney Here 45 Years Dies,” November 10, 1966.

Mitchell, Ethel V., ed. Contributions of Black Women to Minnesota History. St. Paul: Mason Publishing, 1977.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, St. Paul Chapter. Minute Books, 1934-1941. Uncataloged manuscripts, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Foreman, Mary Lee (daughter of A. A. Lee). Personal interview, August 12, 1991.

Reinhart, Thomas, E. The Minneapolis Black Community, 1863-1926. St. Cloud, Minnesota: St. John’s University, 1970.

Spangler, Earl. The Negro in Minnesota. Minneapolis: T. S. Denison and Company, 1961.

Taylor, David Vassar. “The Black Community in the Twin Cities.” Roots, Fall 1988 (Minnesota Historical Society).

Taylor, David Vassar. “The Blacks.” In They Chose Minnesota, June Drenning Holmquist, ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Wright, John S. A Stronger Soul within a Finer Frame: Portraying African-Americans in the Black Renaissance. Minneapolis: University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 1990.

Young, Whitney M. Jr., Histoyy of the St. Paul Urban League. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, August 1947.

Nellie Stone Johnson, Tela Burt, Earl Bowman, Hobart Mitchell Sr., Ray Cannon Jr., and Harry Davis Jr. provided information in personal and telephone interviews towards the completion of the nomination of Lena O. Smith’s home to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

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