The inspiring profile of Minnesota’s first Black policewoman who earned a bachelor’s degree at 79

Stephen Nartey January 02, 2023
Ethel Ray Nance/Photo via Mnopedia

She had a passion for note taking and this inspired civil rights activist Ethel Ray Nance to train in stenography while in high school. She got a job at the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission as a stenographer in 1919.

She sparked headlines in the national dailies when in 1923 she was employed as a stenographer at the Minnesota State Legislature. She was the first African American to occupy such a role in the legislature. Nance later found a job at the New York Urban League magazine, Opportunity. This was after her meeting with the director of research and editor of Opportunity, Charles S. Johnson, in 1924.

She was employed as Johnson’s secretary, writer and researcher for Opportunity. This pushed her to relocate to New York. During the Harlem Renaissance, she offered her residence in New York for young writers and artists to explore their artistic impressions. Nance however had to quit the job in 1928 to return to Minnesota to tend to her sick mother.

It was during this period that she was employed as the first African-American policewoman in Minnesota after the Minneapolis Police Department established its first women’s bureau. She worked at the unit until 1931 when she was compelled to retire because of acute arthritis.

She is celebrated for breaking the prevailing racial and gender barriers in Minnesota. She was born on April 13, 1899, in Duluth to William H. Ray, an African-American native of North Carolina, and Inga Nordquist Ray, a Swedish immigrant.

Nance was the youngest among four children. Her family battled racism following interactions with neighbors and community folks. Historians say her father had a huge influence on her philosophy during her formative years, as he read to her about African-American struggles and the need for them to fight racism.

Her father established the NAACP branch in the city of Duluth when he witnessed the barbaric lynching of three Black men who had been accused of raping a white woman in 1920. Nance’s father was appalled when he learned of the men being hanged four blocks from their home in Duluth.

Civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois at some point gave a lecture at one of Duluth’s NAACP meetings. Nance had the opportunity to meet Du Bois and by 1945, she became a secretary for him when she moved to San Francisco with her family. Du Bois had a contract as a consultant to the American delegation at the founding of the United Nations.

Nance worked with the NAACP’s West Coast Regional Office in San Francisco and helped set up the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, working there for 10 years. She became the oldest person to acquire her bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco at the age of 79. Nance passed away on July 11, 1992, in San Francisco at the age of 93.

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