Black History Salute: Minnesota’s First Black Policewoman

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing short clips highlighting the legacy and history of Blacks in Minnesota. This week, we salute Ethel Ray Nance, Minnesota’s first African American policewoman and first African American to work in the state legislature.

Ethel Ray Nance // Courtesy Duluth Public Library

While the job of stenographer may not seem groundbreaking, Ethel Ray Nance made headlines for it. She was the first African American to be hired for the position in the Minnesota State Legislature in 1923 — just one of many firsts in her career.

Nance was born in 1899 to a Black father and Swedish mother in Duluth, where Blacks were few (only 400 in 1900) and racial unrest was rampant. After a lynching of three young Black men, her father William Ray organized the Duluth NAACP in 1921, where he served as president and Nance got her start as an activist and writer.

After a year at the legislature, she went on to work for the Kansas City Urban League and eventually moved to New York to work as secretary for the New York Urban League director of research and contribute to Opportunity magazine during the Harlem Renaissance.

Easter 1927 at Phyllis Wheatley House //
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

She soon returned to Minneapolis where she served as associate head resident for the historic Phyllis Wheatley House. Two years later, the Minneapolis Police Department formed its first women’s bureau, and Nance was hired as its first African American policewoman.

She quit in 1931 due to arthritis and went on to hold secretarial jobs with the State, the Minneapolis Urban League, and the Minnesota Department of Education. By 1945, she had landed work as secretary for W.E.B. DuBois. Nance then returned to work for the NAACP’s West Coast Regional Office in San Francisco and helped found the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, where she worked for 10 years.

Nance worked a series of other jobs in the Twin Cities and San Francisco before retiring in 1978 from African-American Historical and Cultural Society. In 1978, at the age of 79, she became the oldest person to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco and in May 1979 worked on the Minnesota Historical Society’s public forum “Black Women in Minnesota, 1920–1940.”

Nance received numerous awards during her career, including honors from the African American Historical and Cultural Society and the Negro Historical Society. She remained active until her passing on July 11, 1992 in San Francisco.

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