Julia B. Nelson was “very independent in her thinking . . . in view of the customs of her day. She was subjected to unjust ridicule from thoughtless people.”
“The person who is ahead of the times pays the penalty for being ‘radical’ until such ‘radicalism’ is accepted by the people as conservative.”
*Editor, Red Wing Republican, Aug. 16, 1934, p. 2.
Julia B. Nelson (1842-1914) was a Hamline University student during its Red Wing years, and was the first person in Goodhue County to receive a first-grade teaching certificate.
At age 26, Julia Bullard Nelson lost both her only child and her husband Ole Nelson, who she met while attending Hamline University. Following her husband’s death, she answered a call from the American Missionary Association (AMA) to teach freed Black children in the South in order to “consecrate her life to work among the lowly and down-trodden.”
From 1869 to 1881, Nelson taught in Freedman’s schools in Texas and Tennessee for both the AMA and the Quakers. Her work was often hindered by hostile Whites and poor supplies, but she persevered and her pupils flourished. In addition, she penned articles for Northern newspapers to educate others about a variety of social justice issues.
Nelson returned to Minnesota several times during her teaching career, where she engaged woman suffrage and Temperance, both of which she took up with vigor. A return in 1873 saw her join the Minnesota branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) where, with with Harriet A. Hobart (wife of Rev. Chauncey Hobart, Hamline Trustee from 1854-1861) and Elizabeth Hutchinson (first wife of abolitionist Asa Hutchinson, one of the founders of Hutchinson, Minnesota), Nelson spoke at the WCTU’s 1874 state convention in Red Wing in favor of a resolution on woman suffrage.
A second trip to Minnesota in 1881 placed Nelson among the charter members of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MnWSA). A third break from teaching in 1886 found her at the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) convention in Washington, D.C. as a member of the NWSA executive committee. There, she spoke eloquently to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on the topic of woman suffrage:
“What are the obligations of the Government to me, a widow, because my husband gave his life for it? . . . . I am teaching for it, teaching citizens. I began teaching freedmen when it was so unpopular that men could not have done it. The voting question met me in the office of the mission, which sends out more women than men because better work is done by them. A woman gets for this work $15 per month . . . . A man in this position receives $75 a month. There must be something wrong. . . .
“If [the law] puts woman down as an inferior, she will surely be regarded as such by the people. If I am capable of preparing citizens, I am capable of possessing the rights of a citizen myself. I ask you to remove the barriers which restrain women from equal opportunities and privileges with men.”
Julia B. Nelson left the South permanently in 1888. The following year, she served as the Vice President of the Minnesota WCTU and edited the Minnesota White Ribboner. She was among the group that founded the MnWSA, and by 1890 had been elected its president – a position she held until 1896. In her work for woman’s rights, she assisted the national suffrage campaign by touring the Midwest, Plains, and West as a forcible speaker and organizer for suffrage. As Julia Wiech Leif writes, “Whenever she was heckled during her speeches, she was imperturbable; she always had an answer. Once someone said women should not vote because they could not bear arms. ‘Women don’t bear arms,’ she retorted, ‘but they bear armies.’”
Leif notes that Nelson was “the rock on which the effort for woman suffrage has been founded in this State.” And from her Freedmen pupils grew professors of Fisk and Howard Universities, as well as the Tuskegee Institute. She counted as friends Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. For one whose life was devoted to “the lowly and down-trodden” her legacy is rich indeed. She died on Christmas Eve, 1914.
*I published a version of this article in 150 Lives that Make a Difference (Hamline University Press, 2005)
Cottrell, Debbie Mauldin, “Nelson, Julia Bullard.” Handbook of Texas Online, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fnecu
Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn, History of Goodhue County, Minnesota, (Chicago: HC Cooper, 1909).
Lief, Julia Wiech, “A Woman of Purpose: Julia B. Nelson.” Minnesota History 47.8 (1981): 303-341. collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/47/v47i08p302-314.pdf
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady and Anthony, Susan B., et. al., History of Woman Suffrage Vols. 1-4. (Rochester, New York: National Woman Suffrage Association, 1848-1920).