by Ehsan Alam, MNOPEDIA. Originally published June 14, 2017.
St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood ran roughly between University Avenue to the north, Selby Avenue to the south, Rice Street to the east, and Lexington Avenue to the west. African American churches, businesses, and schools set down roots there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating a strong community. Construction of Interstate-94 (I-94) between 1956 and 1968 cut the neighborhood in half and fractured its identity as a cultural center.
From the beginning, Rondo was a haven for people of color and immigrants. Its namesake, Joseph Rondeau, moved there in the late 1850s from a site close to Fort Snelling, where he had faced discrimination due to his wife’s mixed white and indigenous heritage. French Canadian immigrants followed Rondeau to the area in the late nineteenth century; later, German, Russian, Irish, and Jewish families found homes there.
Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, Rondo experienced a social and cultural boom. Music and theater flourished. African American newspapers such as the Appeal, the Northwestern Bulletin, and the St. Paul Recorder represented Rondo’s interests and needs. In 1913, St. Paul established its chapter of the NAACP, making it a center for civil rights activity. One member of the chapter, Rondo resident Roy Wilkins, later led the national NAACP.
As Rondo’s Jews advanced economically in the first decades of the twentieth century, they moved to new areas. This left behind affordable housing for African Americans. By the 1930s, half of St. Paul’s black population lived in Rondo. Even during the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites mixed relatively freely; interracial dating and even marriage sometimes took place.
Supported by the booming railway industry and local businesses, Rondo’s black families were upper-middle and middle class as well as working class. Integrated schools, such as Central High School, Maxfield Elementary School, and parochial schools, created a relatively high level of education and literacy among minority residents. This openness in turn attracted southern blacks who faced stark racial prejudice and violence.
Several organizations arose to meet the growing community’s social needs. The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center provided human services and gave African Americans a place to meet and socialize. In 1928, the Credjafawn Social Club began to offer a social and recreational space for young blacks. It went on to create a food cooperative and a credit union that helped residents finance their homes and educations. The Sterling Club, founded in 1919, was a networking association for African American professionals who were often excluded from other professional groups.
In the 1930s, commuters and city planners began to call for a highway linking the business districts of downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. After World War II, city engineers chose St. Anthony Avenue as the route. This street was located between University Ave and Marshall Avenue, and went all the way to Minneapolis. When the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 promised funding, it set in motion plans to lay down the freeway through the heart of the Rondo area.
Resistance to the freeway plan came quickly. In early 1956, Reverend Floyd Massey Jr. and Timothy Howard started the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association. This group, speaking for threatened property holders, protested the proposed route and pushed for assistance for those forced to move.
The Housing Authority offered to help if the Highway Department would pay $30,000 to cover costs, but ultimately contributed no funds. The St. Paul City Council rebuffed attempts at passing local open-occupancy laws. The association did, however, succeed in changing the interstate’s design from an elevated to a depressed highway with bridges joining the bisected sides, dividing the community in a less pronounced way.
In September of 1956, when construction began, some Rondo residents continued to resist. Police forcibly removed Reverend George Davis from his home when he refused to evacuate and make way for wrecking crews. Construction proceeded, however, and I-94 opened in 1968.
Although the African American community was injured, it maintained a strong identity. Playwright August Wilson lived in the Rondo area in the 1970s and 1980s and wrote many of his plays while living there. In 1983, the first annual Rondo Days Festival was held; in 2006, the Rondo Community Outreach Library opened with a mission to support community engagement.