Etta Furlow’s struggle for democracy, justice, and socialism

BY:Rebecca Pera| February 15, 2023
Etta Furlow’s struggle for democracy, justice, and socialism


For eight decades, comrade Etta Furlow lived a life filled with struggle and achievements, culminating with a long list of accomplishments that left a legacy for our club and district. She was known in our club and in the community as “Queen Mother” for her tireless efforts in fighting for the rights of African Americans, women, and the working class in Minnesota. She was recognized by the NAACP, St. Paul Urban League, AFL-CIO, and the Minnesota Nurses’s Association for her work in the labor and civil rights movements.

This outstanding movement leader received the Rosa Parks Award on February 27, 1983, in commemoration of Black History Month for her “aggressive articulation of racist and unjust practices on local, state, and national issues.” And in the 1980s, the City of St. Paul, Minnesota declared “Etta Furlow Day” in her honor.

Born in 1910 in Missouri,  Furlow moved to Chicago in the 1940s to pursue her studies in nursing. Having received her certificate for massage and physical therapy in 1947, she would become a Licensed Practical Nurse in the state of Illinois in 1959. Upon receiving her diploma, she moved to St. Paul in 1960 with her husband, James Furlow, to work in an integrated hospital. During this period, our party leader also transitioned into the role of labor organizer, leading the fight to integrate the Minnesota Practical Nurses Association, the predecessor of the Minnesota Licensed Practical Nurses Association (MLPNA).

A fierce advocate for Black women, she used her position as a labor leader to push for integration, respect, and unity in the Minnesota Nurses Association. As she continued the struggle into her later years, Comrade Etta discussed concerns over the excessive pressure placed on women for waged labor, and the increased competition among women in the capitalist workplace. “A situation which polarizes rather than unites women is not progress,” she said.

Having worked as a pediatric nurse for many of her professional years, Furlow also held in high esteem “reproductive labor”—the work women do that is life-sustaining: domestic work and raising children, keeping ourselves, our families, and others around us healthy, safe, fed, clean, cared for, and thriving. In other words, the labor leader deeply valued the essential work that our economy tends not to acknowledge or compensate. “The world depends on women and women depend on each other,” she stated.

James and Etta Furlow were foster parents and their work at home mirrored the social justice work that they did in the community. The latter frequently had nieces and nephews staying with her whom she would help raise. Her home was the after-school gathering spot for children on her block who might not have had anywhere else to go. In her position as Education Chairperson for the Minnesota Licensed Practical Nurses Association, Furlow worked unremittingly to get a child abuse protection law passed in the state. And it was she who organized the first seminar on the subject of child abuse in Minnesota in 1973.

Comrade Furlow understood that under capitalism, we neglect cooperation and collectivity for individualism, and place a higher importance on material consumption than on our health, community, and well-being. As a foster mother, a community mother, and “Queen Mother,” she valued time for true connections with people over “token stuff”, as she put it. “Toys and trips are no substitute for love. The only thing anybody really needs is food, shelter, warmth, participation, and recognition.”

The respected community leader also promoted participation and recognition for seniors of color in her work with the Metropolitan Council’s Minority Issues Advisory Committee and the Metropolitan Council’s Advisory Commission for the Aging. In these roles, she arranged for homebound senior residents to attend the Minnesota state fair and helped to organize a voter registration drive specifically targeting seniors.

Furlow’s rich tapestry of lived experiences led her to storytelling. In the 1980s, she was involved in a storytelling group called Whispers, composed of older women. A play based on her life, entitled Etta, was written and performed at the Guthrie Theater, a center for theater performance, production and education in Minneapolis. “We all have a story to tell,” the play’s original protagonist explained.

Etta Furlow was a member of the Bill Herron club in St. Paul, Minnesota until her passing. Comrades in our club and district have many fond memories of her. They recall how “Queen Mother” would frequently be seen with other comrades in our district—such as Rose, Meridel, and others, reading books and passing out party literature at the Paul Robeson bookstore in Dinkytown, Minneapolis. In the Twin Cities club, we are grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of legends like Comrade Furlow, who help us continue the struggle.

“I strive to get along with folks here on earth,” she concluded.

Rest in Power, comrade!


Biographical data and photos taken from The Etta Furlow Papers, Manuscripts Collection at the Minnesota Historical Society

Quotes taken from Marilee Jackson, “Outstanding Senior Puts Love Into Action,” Lillie Suburban Newspapers, August 18, 1986


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