Ethel Ray Nance

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

As a young girl growing up in Duluth, Ethel Ray would sit on the rocks above her Central Hillside home and, watching ships head out of the harbor and onto Lake Superior, dream of traveling away from her hometown. When she did leave the Zenith City, she began an amazing life devoted to black activism and social equality.

Ethel Ray was born in Duluth on April 13, 1899, the youngest of four children of William H. Ray and Inga (Nordquist) Ray. William was an African American born in North Carolina about 1862. His parents died when he was around 10 years old, and he was taken to Burlington, Iowa, to be raised by a German farm family. There he received an education and moved to Minneapolis in the 1880s. Inga was born in Sweden about 1860 and emigrated from Sweden in the mid-1880s, settling in Minneapolis with her brother.

William and Inga met in Minneapolis when they were both working at the Hotel Ardmore. They married about 1889 and moved to Duluth, where William found work as a waiter at the Spalding Hotel. In the summers he worked on the passenger ships that toured the Great Lakes. They moved to Two Harbors in the mid-1890s where they ran a boarding house and restaurant, but by 1898 they had returned to Duluth, where Ethel was born the next year.

Ethel grew up in the family’s house at 209 East Fifth Street. She attended Nettleton School through eighth grade and then went on to Central High School. She was a member of the Philathea Club (a female literary society) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 1710 E. Superior Street and also attended services at St. Mark’s AME Church at 530 North Fifth Avenue East. In high school she took the Commercial and Special Course, preparing for a career as a stenographer, and belonged to the French Club and the Athletic Club. In her senior year she worked as an usher at the Rex Theater (later the Garrick Theater). She graduated from Central in June 1917.

William Ray had a major influence on his daughter. Strong and defiant, he faced up to the racism he encountered. He was a voracious reader and owned a fairly extensive library. He subscribed to African-American journals including the Messenger and the Guardian and read from them to his children. Ethel said later her father wanted the children to understand about the injustice in the world.

In a 1974 interview for the Minnesota Historical Society (see the transcript here), Ethel described her childhood as lonely. According to the U.S. Census, there were about 400 African Americans living in Duluth by 1900, and African Americans have never made up more than two percent of Duluth’s population. Ethel said she could go for days without seeing another black person, and that other than the school events and church activities, there wasn’t a lot for her to do in the Zenith City.

Following high school, Ethel looked for work as a stenographer. Early in 1919, she found a job with the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission, formed to provide aid to victims of the October 1918 Cloquet Fire, which burned an area of 1,500 square miles and affected about 50,000 people. She started working in Duluth and was later assigned to the office in Moose Lake.

In 1919, William took his daughter on a four-month trip to the eastern and southern United States, both to educate her about what African Americans had accomplished and to visit relatives in North Carolina. They visited Chicago; Detroit; Philadelphia; Boston; New York; Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina. Everywhere they went, she said later, her father encouraged young people to go north to attend school.

After the trip, Ethel returned to her job with the Forest Fires Relief Commission in Moose Lake, traveling home to Duluth on weekends. One morning in June 1920, she noticed her acquaintences in Moose Lake began treating her oddly. A friend told her about the lynching of three black men in Duluth the night before. They were accused of raping a white woman and hung on a light pole on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. Ethel returned to the Zenith City to find her father furious about the incident, which had happened four blocks from their home. He told her that when he walked down Second Avenue East the next morning to go to work, he saw the bodies of the three men still lying on the street.

The lynching gave impetus to William’s efforts to form a Duluth branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had failed before to generate any interest in forming a local branch, but the lynching incident changed people’s minds. He arranged to bring nationally famous educator and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois to Duluth to speak at a meeting of the group on March 21, 1921. Ethel traveled to Minneapolis to accompany Du Bois on the train to Duluth. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Du Bois and Ethel. Du Bois told the Duluth audience, which crowded into St. Mark’s AME Church and included many white people, that the races are dependent upon each other. William Ray presided over the meeting, Ethel gave an introductory talk, and Henry Williams (grandfather of jazz pianist Sadik Hakim) played a violin solo as part of the program.

In 1923, Ethel was hired as the first African-American stenographer in the Minnesota Legislature. She was assigned to be secretary to three committees—education, apportionment, and banks and banking. That “first” got her some attention in the media as well as some job offers. She accepted an appointment at the Kansas City Urban League. The National Urban League conference was held in Kansas City in 1924, and Ethel met some prominent African Americans, including Charles S. Johnson, director of research for the Urban League office in New York and editor of the League’s magazine, Opportunity. Johnson offered her a job in the New York office, which she accepted.

Ethel was in New York for about two years, from 1924 to 1926, during the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, the blossoming of African-American literary and artistic achievement. Her responsibilities with the Urban League included serving as Charles S. Johnson’s secretary, editing Opportunity magazine, and researching. She also helped organize the first Opportunity Awards Dinner in 1925, where she met many black writers and artists, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Jean Toomer, and Arna Bontemps.

She shared an apartment at 580 Saint Nicholas Avenue in Harlem with New York Public Library librarian Regina Anderson and a third woman. Known in Harlem simply as “580,” the apartment became a gathering place for many writers and scholars.

Ethel returned to Duluth in 1926 to care for her ailing mother. Later that year she was hired as associate head resident of the Phyllis Wheately Settlement House in Minneapolis. Founded in 1924, it was a place for young African-American women to find shelter and guidance and learn job skills. In 1928, when the Minneapolis Police Department was establishing a women’s bureau, Ethel became the first black policewoman on the force. She kept that position until about 1932 when she resigned because of worsening arthritis.

On August 3, 1929, she married LeRoy A. H. Williams in the Twin Cities. After she quit the police department, they moved around looking for work, first to Duluth, then to Washington, DC, where her first son, Thatcher, was born on January 11, 1933. They had returned to Duluth by the time her second son, Glenn Ray, was born on July 2, 1934.

Failing to find work in the Zenith City, the family returned to the Twin Cities. In the next few years, Ethel took a series of secretarial jobs—with the Minnesota Legislature again, the Minneapolis Urban League, the Phyllis Wheately Settlement House, and as administrative assistant to the commissioner of education in the Minnesota Department of Education. Ethel left Minnesota in 1940 to work as secretary to the dean of instruction at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia.

Some time after their return to the Twin Cities, she and Williams became estranged; what became of Mr. Williams is not clear, but by 1943 Ethel was living in Seattle. There she performed a series of government jobs during the remainder of World War II. On February 2, 1944, she married Clarence A. Nance in a civil ceremony at the King County Courthouse. Her two sons also took Nance’s name.

In the spring of 1945, Ethel began working for W. E. B. Du Bois as his secretary at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, where he was a consultant to the American delegation. Ethel next spent a brief period in New York researching for Dr. Du Bois, before moving to San Francisco for ten years with the West Coast Regional Office of the NAACP. During this time her parents died, her father in November, 1948, during a visit with Ethel, and her mother just two months later. That was followed by several jobs in San Francisco and a year (1969) back in Minneapolis with the Twin Cities Opportunity Industrialization Center. Her final position before retirement was with the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society.

During her life, Ethel wrote numerous magazine articles, including “Along Came Ben” (Opportunity, January 1924) and “The New York Arts Renaissance, 1924-1926,” (Negro History Bulletin, April 1968). She also worked on an autobiographical account of her work with W. E. B. 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.

Ethel retired in 1978 but still remained active. In 1979 she received a B.A. from the University of California. She also worked on projects for the Minnesota Historical Society, including the public forum “Black Women in Minnesota, 1920–1940” in May 1979, and she volunteered at the San Francisco Public Library.

Ethel died in San Francisco on July 11, 1992, at the age of 93. She had seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Story by David Ouse. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by David Ouse.