Minnesota Black History Salute: Lena O. Smith

Lena Olive Smith

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing short clips highlighting the legacy and history of Blacks in Minnesota. This week, we salute Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota’s first female African American lawyer.

Long before there was Nader’s Raiders, there was Lena O. Smith. In 1921 she filed her first lawsuit challenging housing discrimination just 11 days after becoming Minnesota’s first Black woman lawyer (and one of precious few in the country).

Smith had become involved in civil rights activism six years prior as a real estate agent, when she was inspired to attend law school after witnessing the use of restricted housing covenants and other discriminatory practices.

After launching a stream of legal housing challenges, she went on to serve as head of the Minneapolis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Redress Committee from 1926 to 1930.

In 1930, she became the Minneapolis NAACP’s first woman president. Smith also helped establish a local chapter of the National Urban League in Minneapolis.

In one of her most prominent local cases, she helped African American couple Arthur and Edith Lee in 1931 navigate White outrage after they purchased a home in a predominantly White neighborhood in South Minneapolis.

Her goal was not only to win local cases, but to “give a voice” and visibility to African Americans being cheated out of their homes, their safety and their rights.

“I’m from the West and fearless,” she said in an interview during her time as NAACP president. “I’m used to doing the right thing without regard for myself. Of course, battles leave their scars, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.”

Smith practiced law until she passed away in 1966, leaving behind a legacy of leadership for housing and labor equity. In 1991, her South Minneapolis home — known as the Lena  O. Smith House — was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Minnesota Black Women’s Lawyer Network holds an annual luncheon in her honor.

To learn more about this Minnesota civil rights pioneer, read her story here: bit.ly/2SqZwpN.