It is frustrating that many important women and minorities in journalism have never received the recognition they deserved. A good place to start changing this is with the career of Nell Dodson Russell, who spent more than a decade writing for the Minneapolis Spokesman (today the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder).
She was born Nellie Ellen Dodson in Minneapolis on July 30, 1913. Nellie was only 10 when her mother died, and she was raised by her father Walter, a waiter at the Rogers Hotel and later a dispatcher at the Greyhound Bus Company. All her life she spoke admiringly of her dad, who helped her to develop the inner strength she needed to thrive in a segregated society.
After graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in 1931, Nellie attended the University of Minnesota to study creative writing. Although the university admitted students of color, it did not want them to stay in the dorms; sometimes, when a Black female student from out of town came to see the university, she would stay at Nellie’s house.
It was while Nellie studied at the university that she became involved with journalism. She wrote social commentary for one of the university’s student magazines, the Ski-U-Mah. She was later hired by Spokesman editor Cecil Newman, who had debuted his new publication in August 1934. Nellie became the Spokesman’s college correspondent in mid-1935.
For the next several years, she reported on the doings of the Black students at the university. In addition, she decided to report about sports. There were few women, Black or White, covering men’s sports back then, but Nellie knew she could do it, and Newman gave her a chance.
Some of the male readers objected, but her editor defended her, and gradually the furor died down. Her only problem was being denied access to the locker rooms (an issue that would continue to frustrate female sports reporters well into the 1980s). Otherwise, her thorough coverage of college sports earned the respect of the readers and the players.
It also led to an incredible job offer. In 1938, she heard that the Baltimore Afro-American needed a sportswriter. When she applied, she was hired. It meant leaving the University of Minnesota without finishing her degree, as well as no longer writing for the Spokesman, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
By now she was writing as Nell Dodson rather than Nellie. In Baltimore, she was immediately assigned to cover a wide range of sports, from boxing matches to college football to Negro Leagues baseball. She did so well that she was promoted to sports editor, perhaps the first (and at that time, the only) Black woman sports editor. She also wrote occasional columns on entertainment and what prominent members of Baltimore’s Black community were doing.
What was interesting about Nell Dodson’s sports reporting was how she combined coverage of the games with commentary about racism in the culture, or critiques of the quality of Negro League baseball. In her column “Lady in the Pressbox,” she wrote about how Black professional athletes received far less money than their White counterparts, and she expressed dismay at how inferior their training facilities were compared to White athletes’.
She praised the players who showed hustle and had respect for their sport, and she wasn’t afraid to be critical of those who didn’t. She also took certain Negro League owners to task for making money for themselves while refusing to invest more in their teams.
Ultimately, it was her work covering entertainment news that led to her next opportunity, this time in New York City. After writing for the Amsterdam News and freelancing for the Associated Negro Press, the People’s Voice, a new Harlem publication co-founded by preacher and politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., hired Nell in 1942. She interviewed some of the biggest names in jazz and big band music. As a columnist, she was once again not shy in speaking out against racism, whether in the unequal treatment Black troops endured during World War II, or the stereotypes spread by mainstream (White) newspapers about Harlem as a supposedly dangerous neighborhood.
Her investigative report on the outrageously low salaries paid to Black Harlem nightclub performers, as opposed to what White performers received, was quoted by such entertainment publications as Variety and Billboard. It brought some much-needed attention to discrimination in the music industry.
Then, in mid-1945, her father was ill and Nell left the People’s Voice to return to Minneapolis and help take care of him. By this time, she was married to William L. Russell, an Army sergeant during the war. She admitted to agonizing about whether to take her husband’s last name — she was concerned that her father might feel she was abandoning her Dodson ancestry — so she compromised and wrote as Nell Dodson Russell from 1943 on. Once she returned to Minneapolis, she also rejoined the Spokesman full-time; her arrival made the front page on July 13, 1945.
Nell’s beat now included covering politics. Like Cecil Newman, she believed Black citizens should harness their political power and only vote for candidates who paid attention to the Black community. She became a supporter of Hubert Humphrey, and she even spoke on local radio (including WCCO) about causes and candidates she believed in.
She also applied for membership in the Minneapolis College Women’s Club, which had never before admitted a Black member. Although some in the club did not want it integrated, the majority did. In July 1948, by a vote of 588-129, Nell became its first Black member.
Nell’s father didn’t live see this achievement; he died in April 1948. Nell remained in Minneapolis until the summer of 1949 when she and her husband returned to New York. Local reporters, including some at the Star and the Tribune, were sorry to see her go. Her columns had been frequently read and discussed, and some were even reprinted in out-of-state newspapers. But her colleagues were pleased to learn she would continue writing for the Spokesman, even from New York.
Ultimately, around 1953, Nell left journalism and went to work for an insurance company. She and her husband retired to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she died in 1982.
Today, Nell Dodson Russell, possibly the first Black woman sports editor, a frequently quoted entertainment and political reporter, a popular Spokesman columnist, and a tireless advocate for equality, is rarely remembered. But in the 1930s and 1940s she was a widely respected journalist, and her perspectives deserve to be revisited.
Donna L. Halper, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is a media historian and the author of six books and many articles. She is also a former broadcaster.