Lena Olive Smith was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist during the 1920s and 1930s. She made major contributions toward securing civil rights for minorities in the Twin Cities. Smith began fighting for the rights of others when she became the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota in 1921. She was the only African American woman to practice law in the state until 1945.
Lena Olive Smith came to Minneapolis at the age of twenty-one in 1907 with her mother and siblings. Smith's career before she became a lawyer challenged the racial norms of the Twin Cities. She co-owned a hair salon with a white woman in downtown Minneapolis but eventually went bankrupt. She then became a realtor, a profession known for its blatant racial prejudice. Many realtors and neighborhoods in Minnesota made private agreements restricting the sale of homes to African Americans.
The racism in real estate led Smith to attend Northwestern College of Law, where she graduated in 1921. She became one of nine African American attorneys known to have practiced law in Minneapolis between 1890 and 1927. She was the only black woman to have a law practice in the Twin Cities throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Protecting African Americans' civil rights was no less urgent a cause for progressive lawyers in this era than in later years. The Twin Cities did not experience a level of African American migration equal to that of other major cities or the racial friction that came with it. However, local civil rights issues were the same. African American and white society in the Twin Cities were often segregated. Discrimination in hiring and firing practices and in housing was routine. Yet African Americans maintained a thriving local culture replete with newspapers, churches, restaurants, clubs, fraternal halls, and civil rights groups.
In 1925 Smith helped found the Urban League in Minneapolis. In 1930 Smith was elected the first woman president of the Minneapolis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She left this position nine years later to become a member of the Executive Board and Chair of the joint Legal Redress Committee of the Minneapolis and St. Paul NAACP. As Chair of this committee, Smith was a major force for a proactive posture in the courts.
Smith was also known for acting as the NAACP's prosecuting attorney in the Arthur A. Lee case in 1931. The Lee family bought a home in a previously all-white neighborhood in south Minneapolis. A white attorney advised the Lees to sell their home to the neighborhood committee and leave the area. The Lee family dropped his counsel and Lena Smith stepped in to defend their rights. The case drew local attention as crowds estimated in the thousands milled around the Lees' home, threatening them. Smith successfully protected the Lees' right to stay in their house.
Smith took on other locally important civil rights cases in the period before 1940, including suits against White Castle and the Nicollet Hotel. These cases focused on equal public accommodations. Smith helped end the segregation of African American audiences at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1937 she investigated the alleged beating of Curtis Jordan by two off-duty Minneapolis detectives. Smith won the case for Jordan. Smith also led the NAACP protest of the University of Minnesota's showing of The Birth of a Nation.
In 1939 Smith was listed in Who's Who Among Women Lawyers. She was a member of several legal associations and had an extensive law library. Smith was active in her practice until her death in 1966.
Smith's career is also notable for her work outside the courtroom. In a time when legal action often failed to help minorities, Smith took civil rights issues to politicians, business leaders, and the press.
Throughout much of her professional life Smith lived at 3905 Fifth Avenue South in Minneapolis. The home was a detached two-and-a-half-story dwelling of wood-frame construction finished with narrow clapboard and classical revival details. In 1991 the house was added to the National Register of Historic places based on its association with Smith.
African American Registry. Lena O. Smith, A First in Minnesota.
Juergens, Ann. "Lena Olive Smith: A Minnesota Civil Rights Pioneer." William Mitchell Law Review 397 (2001): 397–451.
Lena O. Smith House, National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Editor's Note: This nomination file was the main source used in the writing of this article.
Youtube. North Star-Minnesota's Black Pioneers/Lena Smith.
In 1921 Lena O. Smith graduates from Northwestern College of Law, launching her legal career.
Smith moves from Kansas to Minnesota with her mother and siblings.
The Lena O. Smith House is constructed.
Smith sues a Twin Cities theater for segregation. She loses, but the theater ends its racist practices.
Smith becomes a member of the Minneapolis NAACP. She participates in the response to the Duluth lynchings.
Smith graduates from Northwestern College of Law. She is the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota.
The Minneapolis chapter of the Urban League is founded with Smith's help.
Smith becomes the first woman president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, serving for the next nine years.
Smith acts as an NAACP representative and attorney during the Arthur. A. Lee case.
Curtis Jordan, an African American man, is beaten by off-duty police officers. Smith investigates and successfully prosecutes the officers.
Smith becomes head of the Legal Redress Committee for the Minneapolis and St. Paul chapters of the NAACP. She successfully sues the Nicollet Hotel for racist practices.
Smith spearheads the NAACP protest of the University of Minnesota showing of The Birth of a Nation.
Smith serves on various bar association committees.
Smith dies and the age of eighty-one, still practicing law.
The Lena O. Smith House is added to the National Register of Historic Places.