Trailblazers: Lena Smith


This month’s Trailblazers article features Lena Smith, the first African American woman attorney in Minnesota. Learn more about Smith’s career as an attorney and the many ways she fought against social barriers and racial covenants.

By Racey Rodne 

Last month I helped put together a one-hour seminar on Fredrick McGhee (see November 2021 Trailblazer article). We had over 120 people attend that program and gain insight on the first African American attorney in Minnesota. It seems only right that in celebrating Women’s History Month that we highlight the first African American woman attorney in Minnesota—Lena Smith.

Lena O. SmithBefore going to law school, Lena Smith (1885-1966) fought through social barriers to find her passion. She first attempted to run a hair salon in Minneapolis. She then became a real estate agent, which is impressive for two reasons: (1) she may have been the only or one of the few women real estate agents in Minneapolis; and (2) racial covenants were not only occurring, but were becoming normal at the time she was attempting to sell homes. [1]

Lena Smith eventually pivoted to law school and attended Northwestern College of Law (which eventually became Mitchell Hamline School of Law). She was one of the first dozen or so woman attorneys in the state of Minnesota. Smith’s career was largely focused on civil rights cases. Smith was also the first woman to serve as the President of the Minneapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Upon her election she was quoted:

“Some of them [those favoring a less confrontational approach to segregation] were raised in the South and are used to catering to white men. I’m from the West and fearless. I’m used to doing the right thing without regard for myself. Of course battles leave their scars but I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I think it is my duty. It’s a hard place to be—on the firing line—but I’m mighty glad I’m there. . . Of course I want peace but I don’t want it at that price.”[2]

This quote summarizes Smith’s trailblazing life—she was fearless. She continued to attack social barriers to do what was right her entire life. Smith was fighting racial covenants as they were gaining popularity, and I hope she would be happy that there are groups now fighting to erase them from history. Just Deeds is a group started by two lawyers that work to eliminate racial covenants. More information can be found here:

Racey Rodne, who practices personal injury law with McEllistrem Fargione, PA, is co-chair of the New Lawyers Section, and a member of the RCBA Board and the Diversity Committee.

[1] See


[3] Most of the information in this article I learned from &