Savor Black Minnesota history: 12 notable landmarks

Photo by Steve Floyd/MSR News The Lena O. Smith House is located at 3905 5th Avenue South in Minneapolis.

Honoring a legacy of leadership in housing and labor equity

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 survive White outrage after they purchased a home in a predominantly White neighborhood in South Minneapolis (see Lee Monument on previous page). 

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.

Information from Wikipedia and nps.gov.

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