Persistence: Continuing the Struggle for Suffrage and Equality, 1830-2020
Artist: Jennifer Soriano
Chosen Suffrage Leader: Nellie Griswold Francis
Nellie’s absolute fearlessness caught my attention immediately in my research for her portrait. She was a woman not easily intimidated. I wanted this quality of character to come through in her portrait. My feelings of connection with and interest in Nellie are very personal. She was lived in the Frogtown/Rondo area. She went to church here and had a deep connection to this community and its people. She actively volunteered and participated in bettering the lives and educations of those around her including holding classes in her own home. I have been an educator for 20 years, the last several in the Frogtown area, just a few blocks from where Nellie’s first home stood. I look to the young women especially in my classes and see how Nellie’s efforts still have fruits today both in the surrounding community and for women on a larger National scale. She always seemed to have had an eye to the future, particularly how her efforts in the suffrage movement might contribute to the opportunities and liberties of future generations.
Pictures and visual imagery are the universal language. Where words often fail, visual art can communicate powerful ideas and feelings are not bound by the constraints of language and time. In approaching Nellie’s image, I wanted a clear sense of her vibrant and undaunted personality to come through. She locks her gaze with the viewer’s in a more direct pose, so that one might leave with the impression this is a woman who not only cared deeply for people but would also not be easily intimidated from her purpose. The wave like patterns of the ink washes as well as their energetic splatters in the background lend a sense of energy and unstoppable purpose which surround Nellie. This complements the solid and focused nature of the charcoal rending used for her portrait. Portraiture is not the mere capturing of a likeness, it is a window into someone’s very being.
Jennifer Soriano Biography
All good work tells a compelling story that both captures the imagination of its audience and draws them into the telling of their own related stories. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975, Jennifer Soriano, grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories of her childhood in St. Cloud, Mn, her grandfather’s role in the modern treatment for Cystic Fibrosis and the stories of each of the children her grandmother and grandfather adopted in the 1950s.
She credits her grandmother’s early stories and love of history with the beginning of her own fascination with people and the stories their faces tell. The personal histories of people and the reflection of their character through art, has been a predominate theme she strives to bring to life in her portraiture and illustrations. Listening, observing and reading about the lives of those she seeks to capture is an important part of the drawing process itself. It is a way to form a sense of who this person is and what drives their view of the larger world around them. Knowing the stories that form the life of an individual is what captures the heart of each person she renders. In turn, it can evoke a sense of empathy with viewer and their own sense of history and self.
Family, a sense of place and human connection are important to Jennifer. When she is not drawing or teaching, she enjoys photography and hearing people’s stories. Her four children and young grandson keep her busy with their stories and antics. She has been an active participant for over 14 years in traditional Okinawan karate and kobudo, during which time she has been privileged to practice alongside her children.
Jennifer received her BA in Studio Art from the University of Dallas in 1999 and her MFA in Illustration from Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2018. She presently works as an art instructor at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul, MN but has been a fine arts instructor for over 20 years and professional illustrator. Her work has appeared in multiple exhibitions throughout Minnesota and the U.S. Her pastels, drawings and ink paintings have won awards, including the Minnesota State Fair and the American Advertising Awards for her work on the Barley John’s Craft Brew label line.
Her work can also be found in several private collections within the United States. She also recently completed a collection of illustrations for her MFA with the theme, ‘Shattering the Glass Slipper.’ as well as past paintings, drawings, and sketches on display in a solo exhibition entitled, ‘Made in Her Image.’
Nellie Griswold Francis Biography
Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.
Nellie Griswold Francis was a club woman, a suffragist, and an advocate for African Americans in St. Paul and Minnesota. In 1914 she founded the Everywoman Suffrage Club for women of color in St. Paul. Its motto was “Every woman for all women and all women for every woman.” It was affiliated with the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association and sent representatives to its annual conventions. Francis was a member of St. Paul’s Woman’s Welfare League; it’s likely she was the only woman of color in that organization. Francis also served as president of the Minnesota Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and was on the board of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Born in Tennessee, Francis grew up in St. Paul and was the only African American in her graduating class. She gave a graduation speech entitled “The Race Problem” and said “I fail to see whence the American derives that feeling of superiority, which prompts him to refuse the Negro the panoply of citizenship equal to his own.”
In 1894 she married William T. Francis, who graduated from St. Paul College of Law in 1904. She worked as a stenographer for West Publishing, but was able to quit working and devote herself to her many activities and causes. The Francises were the center of black society in St. Paul for about 25 years. Both were talented singers and she led an all-female ensemble called the Folk-Song Coterie that focused on African American music and composers.
Francis made connections with many white women through her membership in the Woman’s Welfare League and her suffrage club’s affiliation with the state suffrage organization. At one 1915 meeting she called on the white women of the Welfare League to help the efforts of black people to suppress the racist film The Birth of a Nation. Speaking in support were Ettie Rypins, the wife of the rabbi at Mount Zion synagogue who was on the NAACP board with Francis, and Sylvie Thygeson, another club woman active in the suffrage movement. The league voted unanimously to send resolutions to the council.
The Everywoman Suffrage Club became the Everywoman Progressive Council after the 19th Amendment was ratified. In 1920 the Council arranged a mass meeting with members of the state legislature in support of a state anti-lynching bill. This was a response to the lynching in Duluth that year. Francis was probably the first black woman to lobby the Minnesota state legislature. The bill passed, with Nellie and William Francis getting major credit by the Appeal, a black newspaper in St. Paul.
Francis’s fight for racial equality brought her into contact with many powerful white individuals, such as Governor Burnquist (who was on the board of the NAACP), and many powerful African American national leaders, both women and men. As president of the Minnesota Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, she worked with national president Mary Church Terrell, a nationally-prominent activist for racial equality and woman suffrage. When her church, Pilgrim Baptist, needed a new organ, she went to Andrew Carnegie’s house in New York and came home with a $1,000 donation. On the way, Minnesota Representative W. C. Stevens and Senator Moses Clapp took her to meet President William Howard Taft in the White House. In 1921 she met President Calvin Coolidge.
The Francises might have interacted with white society a lot, but it didn’t mean they never encountered racism. In 1925 they signed a contract to buy a house on Sargent Avenue in St. Paul, a white part of town. Neighbors voted for a resolution saying that “colored persons are not wanted in the district” and two crosses were burned on their new lawn. They were not dissuaded and they lived in the house for two years.
Her husband became the U.S. Minister to Liberia in 1927 and they sailed for Monrovia that November. Tragically, William died of yellow fever in 1929 and Nellie returned to the United States alone. Rather than live in St. Paul, she returned to Nashville where she lived for another forty years.
Nellie Griswold Francis was a remarkable woman and she made an impression on the people who worked with her. After meeting her, Clara Ueland called her a star and said that she was “what we call a ‘lady,’ but her spirit is a flame.” Even at the age of 104, Sylvie Thygeson remembered her from the Woman’s Welfare League.
Image: Nellie Griswold Francis in the 1920s. Photo from Ramsey County History magazine, Winter 2017, article by Paul D. Nelson. Photo courtesy of MNHS.