Lena Olive Smith: Activist, Lawyer and Minnesota’s First African American Female Real Estate Agent

By MNR News posted 02-16-2022 16:16

When people talk about the legacy of Lena Olive Smith, they inevitably describe her in the same way: fearless and feisty. Few of us have heard of her, but her work from the mid-1910s until her death in 1966 is an inspiring lesson in what just one person can do to create change. Smith was a pioneer of the civil rights movement in Minnesota. Without her work, we would feel the effects of housing discrimination even more acutely than we do now.

A pioneering real estate agent

In 1915, Lena Olive Smith became a real estate agent, advertising her business as “Lena O. Smith, Real Estate, Rentals, Investments.” She is believed to be the first Black female real estate agent in Minnesota.

Her five years in real estate provided countless examples of discrimination against herself and her clients, as well as racially restrictive covenants on some of the properties that her customers might have wanted to purchase. Additionally, following World War I, incidences of violence against Blacks increased all over the country, as Black soldiers came home expecting to be afforded the respect they had received while in service. In 1920, two men were lynched in Duluth after being dragged from the jail where they were awaiting trial for false charges. The Ku Klux Klan opened its first Minnesota chapter in 1922, drawing thousands to rally on their behalf in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

Therefore, when Smith discovered that just two flights up from her real estate office in the Plymouth Building in downtown Minneapolis was the Northwestern College of Law (a predecessor of the William Mitchell College of Law), she decided to become a lawyer and began to attend night school. It was time to fight back.

“Fearless and from the west”

Born in 1885 in Kansas, Smith, along with her mother and siblings, moved to the Twin Cities in 1907. Smith was determined to earn a good living and support her family in their new home. Seemingly born to challenge the norm, she had already tried a career as a dramatist and orator and had managed a company store in a predominantly white mining town. After arriving in the Twin Cities, she attended embalming school, which didn’t work out as she had hoped due to discrimination. So she and a partner—a white Jewish woman—became co-owners of a well-appointed salon in downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Avenue, where Smith worked as a dermatologist and hairdresser. They named it the Olive Salon.

Although this business eventually failed, Smith wasted no time in finding a new career—that of a real estate agent—which she did until she graduated from law school in 1921.

Upon graduating, she became the first female African American lawyer in the state of Minnesota, and one of only three in the United States. In fact, until this time, there had only been nine black lawyers of any gender in Minnesota since 1890, and that remained true until 1927.

When she became an attorney, Smith made a change in her appearance by pulling her hair back into a tight bun to look like a short haircut and donning severe business suits with a tie. In some of her case documents she wrote her name as “L.O. Smith.” We don’t know if she did this to gain trust from those who might spurn a Black female lawyer, but she became well known for this look, which she maintained until her death.

The beginnings of activism

Smith wasted no time making use of her law degree. Within one week of graduating, she began working on a lawsuit on behalf of an elderly Black couple who had a contract-for-deed with their landlord. Expecting to become homeowners once the contract was satisfied, the Parkinsons made expensive improvements to the house and paid all the property taxes. But when it was time for the deed to be turned over, the landlord told them it had been a lease all along and insisted that they had no rights to the property.

This lawsuit became the first of Smith’s many victories in the courtroom.

But the courtroom was not the only place where Smith made an impact. While still in law school, Smith and her colleagues successfully engineered a “sit in” in 1916 at the Pantages Theater, where Blacks were required to sit in the upstairs balcony even though there were no laws in Minnesota to support this type of segregation. Smith and her colleagues were arrested and the case went to trial, with Smith representing the group even she though had not yet completed law school. The case was resolved in Smith’s favor, who represented herself and her group. Each of the protestors was awarded a dollar for damages, which many considered a slap in the face. But Smith saw the publicity around the event and the change she created as the most important reward. Before the trial even began, the Pantages changed their policy about where Blacks could sit. By this time, Smith had joined the new Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. In 1930, she became its first female president.

The landmark case of Arthur and Edith Lee

One of the roles in her work with the NAACP was that of a legal counselor in cases of discrimination. The most famous of Smith’s successes took place in 1931 in her capacity as the lawyer for the NAACP, on behalf of the Lee family.

The Lee family had purchased a home in a white neighborhood in Southwest Minneapolis, unaware that there was a racially restrictive covenant attached to the property. In short order, an angry mob gathered in front of their house. At night, thousands of protestors surrounded their home, threw stones and black paint on it, and then poisoned their dog. This continued for several weeks.

The Lees hired a white lawyer, who advised them to take a vacation and allow the situation to diffuse—and give the neighbors time to raise funds to buy them out.

This is when Lena Olive Smith came onto the scene and convinced the Lee family to fight for their rights and set a precedent against further cases of housing discrimination. Her fearless approach to the case began with her standing on the front steps of the Lee home, letting the crowd of protestors know that she would call the governor and ask him to call out the National Guard. She did indeed meet with the governor, the mayor, and the Minneapolis Chief of police. She had Arthur Lee, a veteran of World War I, speak to the press.

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was fighting for this country in France,” he said. “All I want is my home.” Upon receiving the support of officials, the rioters were dispersed by the police department. The Lee family decided to move away from their home a year later because of continued vandalism and threats, but a movement to fight housing discrimination had begun.

Discrimination and police brutality

Throughout the 1930s, cases of police brutality against African Americans were rampant. In 1937, Smith took on the defense of Curtis Jordan, a black man who had been severely beaten by two drunk off-duty police officers and then taken to jail on trumped up charges. She was able to have the case dismissed, in part by bringing 20 eyewitnesses to the preliminary hearing and creating strong publicity around what had happened. The NAACP chose not to sue for damages in this case because Jordan, who himself had a drinking problem, was not thought to have the best character to win a case and set a precedent for future incidences of police brutality. The two officers were moved to another precinct. 

A credo for life

Smith faced criticism of her activism not only from whites, but also from fellow African Americans, who were afraid that her strong approach would cause more problems than it solved and make open-minded white citizens turn against them. “Most of those people are holding jobs from white people. Some of them were raised in the south and are used to catering to the white man,” she said. “I’m from the West and fearless. I’m used to doing the right thing without regard for myself.”

Those words, “I’m from the West and fearless,” became a calling card for Smith’s career. Lena Olive Smith worked until the very last day of her life. In 1966, at the age of 81, Smith was late for a court appearance. It was discovered that she’d had a heart attack at home.

“Of course, I want peace,” she once said. “But I don’t want it at any price.” Her words speak to us today as strongly as they did then.

To learn more about Lena Olive Smith’s life, watch North Star–Minnesota's Black Pioneers/Lena Smith, produced by Twin Cities PBS, or download Lena Olive Smith: a Minnesota Civil Rights Pioneer by Ann Juergen from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

See also our articles, Mapping Progress and Black-Owned Homes Undervalued by Appraisers, about housing discrimination against minorities, in honor of Black History Month.