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Nance, Ethel Ray (1899–1992)

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Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1917. From the 1917 Duluth Central High School yearbook, Zenith.

Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1917. From the 1917 Duluth Central High School yearbook, Zenith.

Ethel Ray Nance was an African American activist and writer. During the 1920s, she broke various racial and gender barriers in Minnesota, participated in the Harlem Renaissance movement, worked as a secretary for the National Urban League, and contributed to Opportunity magazine. In later decades, she went on to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society.

Ethel Ray was born on April 13, 1899, in Duluth. She was the youngest of four children born to William H. Ray, an African American native of North Carolina raised in Iowa by a German family, and Inga Nordquist Ray, a Swedish immigrant.

At the time of Ethel’s birth, Duluth had an extremely small African American population of about 200 people. Speaking to an interviewer years later, Ethel recalled that she had been lonely as a child. She and her family faced racism from neighbors and community members. Her father was a major influence in her life and often read to her and her siblings about African American struggles and the need to stand up to racism.

During high school, Ethel was trained in stenography (a note-taking technique). In 1919, she began working as a stenographer for the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission, which was helping the 50,000 victims of the 1918 Cloquet, Duluth, and Moose Lake Fires.

In June 1920, a white mob in Duluth lynched three black men accused of raping a white woman. The men were hung four blocks from Ethel’s childhood home. The lynching prompted Ethel’s father to organize a branch of the NAACP for the city of Duluth. A year later, W. E. B. Du Bois, the famous educator and civil rights leader, came to speak at a Duluth NAACP meeting; Ethel was asked to accompany him from Minneapolis to Duluth. The meeting helped to form a life-long friendship between the two.

By 1923, Ethel’s connections with the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission led the Minnesota Legislature to hire her as a stenographer. Her position in the legislature—the first of its kind held by an African American—made national headlines and brought Ethel to the attention of the Kansas City Urban League.

While working for the Kansas City Urban League in 1924, Ethel met Charles S. Johnson, who was director of research of the New York Urban League and editor of Opportunity, the League’s well-known magazine. He offered her a position in New York as his secretary and as a writer, researcher, and editor for Opportunity. After accepting the position, Ethel moved to New York, where her apartment became a gathering place for young writers and artists during the Harlem Renaissance.

Four years later, the need to care for her sick mother brought Ethel back to Minnesota. After a short time in Duluth, she relocated to Minneapolis and took on the position of associate head resident at the Phyllis Wheatley House.

In 1928, the Minneapolis Police Department formed the first women’s bureau and hired Ethel, making her the first African American policewoman in Minnesota. She continued to work until 1931, when acute arthritis forced her to retire.

Ethel married her first husband, LeRoy A. H. Williams, in 1929. They had two sons; Thatcher was born in January 1933 and Glenn Ray in July 1934. They moved throughout the country, where Ethel worked various secretary jobs. By 1943, she had separated from her first husband and lived in Seattle. In February 1944, she married Clarence A. Nance; her two sons took his last name.

By 1945, Ethel and her family relocated to San Francisco, where she became a secretary for Du Bois. He was working as a consultant to the American delegation at the founding of the United Nations. After a short stint working in New York, she returned to San Francisco and worked for the NAACP for ten years.

Ethel went on to work for the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, where she wrote about her time working with Du Bois. In 1978, she became the oldest person to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco.

Ethel died in San Francisco on July 11, 1992. She was ninety-three years old.

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OH 43.16
Minnesota Black History Project: Interview with Ethel Ray Nance
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Mrs. Nance discusses her family background, the Duluth black community in the early 1900s, the 1920 lynchings in Duluth, the Moose Lake Fire Relief Commission (1918) and her work experiences.
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10445842

Ouse, David. “Ethel Ray Nance.” Zenith City Online, February 13, 2014.
http://zenithcity.com/archive/people-biography/ethel-ray-nance/

P1852
Ethel Ray Nance Papers, 1895–1979
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Description: Includes newspaper clippings, correspondence, and biographical information on Ethel Ray Nance.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1917. From the 1917 Duluth Central High School yearbook, Zenith.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1917. From the 1917 Duluth Central High School yearbook, Zenith.
Black and white photograph of the Phyllis Wheatley House diamond ball team, summer 1926. Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance) stands at the far left.
Black and white photograph of the Phyllis Wheatley House diamond ball team, summer 1926. Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance) stands at the far left.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance; far right) with Myrtle Hultberg, Mabel Jackson, and an unknown individual, ca. 1922.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance; far right) with Myrtle Hultberg, Mabel Jackson, and an unknown individual, ca. 1922.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray Nance, ca. 1945.
Black and white photograph of Ethel Ray Nance, ca. 1945.
Black and white photograph of individuals starting a hike from Phyllis Wheatley House with Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1926.
Black and white photograph of individuals starting a hike from Phyllis Wheatley House with Ethel Ray (later Ethel Ray Nance), 1926.
Black and white photograph of an Easter party at Phyllis Wheatley House, Minneapolis (Ethel Ray Nance, center right), ca. 1927.
Black and white photograph of an Easter party at Phyllis Wheatley House, Minneapolis (Ethel Ray Nance, center right), ca. 1927.

Turning Point

In 1923, Ethel Ray Nance becomes the first African American stenographer for the Minnesota State Legislature. From this beginning, Ethel would go on to become the first African American police woman in Minnesota, participate in the Harlem Renaissance through her writing, and work for her long-time friend W. E. B. Du Bois.

Chronology

1899

Ethel Ray is born in Duluth on April 13.

1918

Ethel works as a stenographer for the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Committee Headquarters in Duluth.

1919

Ethel works at the Minnesota State Relief Commission in Moose Lake.

1923

Ethel becomes the Minnesota State Legislature’s first African American stenographer.

1924

Ethel works for the Kansas City Urban League.

1925

During the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel works for Charles Johnson at the National Urban League in New York City.

1926

Phyllis Wheatley House in Minneapolis hires Ethel as its assistant head resident.

1928

Ethel becomes the Minneapolis Police Department’s first African American policewoman—and the first African American policewoman in the state.

1945

Ethel works as the secretary for W. E. B. Du Bois and as a consultant to the American Delegation Founding of the United Nations in San Francisco.

1978

At seventy-nine years old, Ethel becomes the oldest individual to receive a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco.

1992

Ethel passed away on July 11, at the age of ninety-three.