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A glimpse of segregation at the Pantages: Lena O. Smith

Published: June 19, 2020

Lena O Smith graduated from the Northwestern College of Law, photo: Minnesota-Spokesman-Recorder

Photo: Minnesota-Spokesman-Recorder

On Juneteenth, we’re looking back at the long history of racism in Minneapolis and celebrating the civil rights pioneers that enacted change.

When the Pantages Theatre opened in 1916, it was segregated. Months after the opening, law school freshman Lena O. Smith and four Black men attended a performance and attempted to sit on the main floor instead of the balcony. After being stopped, each filed a discrimination suit against the theatre. Smith lost her suit, but a string of suits that followed eventually ended the Pantages’ segregation policy.

Smith began fighting for the rights of others when she graduated from the Northwestern College of Law in 1921 and became the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota. She was the only Black woman to practice law in Minnesota until 1945. Smith went on to win many discrimination lawsuits, fight against the Ku Klux Klan in Minneapolis and serve as the first female president of the local NAACP chapter. She also helped to establish a local chapter for the National Urban League in Minnesota. Smith was tireless and fearless in her civil rights advocacy and once 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.”

Her home in South Minneapolis is on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a local landmark in recognition to the African American community in Minneapolis.

Lena O. Smith and many other activists put their lives on the line to fight racism in Minnesota. We recognize that our community has a long ways to go, and draw inspiration from her remarkable legacy as we look toward the future.

Read more

Minnesota Historical Society biography

Star Tribune: Minnesota’s first Black woman lawyer fought issues familiar today

TPT video: North Star – Minnesota’s Black Pioneers/Lena Smith

E 38th Street Area Walking Tour

National Register of Historic Places


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