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July 11, 1992: Death of Duluth native Ethel Ray Nance

On this day in 1992, Duluth native Ethel Ray Nance died in San Francisco. Nance was born in the Zenith City in 1899, attended Nettleton Elementary, and later graduated from Duluth Central High School. She studied to be a stenographer and was greatly influenced by her father, a voracious reader concerned with the rights of African Americans. Duluth’s 1920 lynchings of three innocent black men spurred her father to form a Duluth branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he arranged to bring nationally famous educator and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois to speak in Duluth. Ethel Ray introduced him and they became friends. In 1923 she became the first black stenographer at the Minnesota State legislature, and just a year later took a job working for Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity, which brought her to New York during the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Her apartment became a gathering place for writers and scholars. She took a series of jobs until 1945, when she began working for du Bois as his secretary. During her life, Nance wrote numerous magazine articles and worked on an autobiographical account of her work with Du Bois and a history of the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society. She received honors from the Negro Historical Society and the African-American Historical and Cultural Society, and San Francisco’s National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs presented her with their Sojourner Truth Award. Read a much more complete bio of Nance by Zenith City’s David Ouse, here.

Ethel Ray Nance’s photograph from the Zenith, the annual yearbook of Duluth Central High School. (Image: Duluth Public Library)