Nellie Wilson: A brave black pioneer

Jamakaya, Contributing writer

It’s Black History Month, so please get to know an unsung heroine: Nellie Sweet Wilson.

A self-described “thorn in the side of management,” Wilson achieved many “firsts” as an African-American woman in the labor union and feminist movements in Wisconsin. I interviewed Wilson for the Women of Wisconsin Labor Oral History Project in 1988.

Nellie Sweet was born in 1916 in Lufkin, Texas. Her grandfather was a former slave and she learned early on about the racist order in Texas. Family members only ventured into town when it was “absolutely necessary.” She was “shushed” a number of times before learning there were things you did not say with white people present.

After her mother died, she moved with her father to Milwaukee in 1928, part of the great migration of African Americans to the north. Durham Sweet became an iron molder at International Harvester. He was proud of his trade and impressed on Nellie the value of his union in improving wages and working conditions. He was also a member of the Negro Improvement Association and instilled in her a sense of racial pride.

Wilson was an avid student and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1934. She wanted to become a nurse but was told that no nursing schools would admit Negroes. It was the middle of the Great Depression and all she could find was menial labor. One job as a live-in maid paid her only $3.25 per week.

Things grew even more challenging after her marriage crumbled and she became responsible for raising two daughters on her own. “It was hard. It was really, really hard,” she said.

Relief finally came during World War II after passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act, which required defense contractors to hire blacks. Wilson was hired by the A.O. Smith Corp., where she was trained to read blueprints and inspect airplane propellers.

A.O. Smith had never previously hired blacks, but “while the war was going,” Wilson said, “we were 100 percent Americans.”

At the end of the war women workers were kicked out of A.O. Smith until the union won a grievance allowing them to stay. Always outspoken, Wilson became a steward, representing the interests of fellow workers. She championed a grievance that ended all occupational barriers against women at A.O. Smith.

In the 1960s, she became the first African-American woman elected to the executive board of Smith Steelworkers Local 19806. She served as a delegate to the Milwaukee County Labor Council. As a member of the Wisconsin Apprenticeship Advisory Council, she helped open the apprenticeship system to women.

“Boy, I was integrating all over!” Wilson joked. “They were following the leader by getting a black to put in the window — except I had a lot more to do than sit up in the window.”

After retiring from A. O. Smith in 1969, Wilson worked in an AFL-CIO project that found training and employment for women, minorities and veterans. She recalled a trio of women bringing her flowers one Easter morning to thank her for placing them in good jobs at Harley-Davidson.

“When you know that you’re the bridge that takes somebody over, that’s a really good feeling,” she said.

Nellie Sweet Wilson died in 2008.