Racism, not a highway, tore apart St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood

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By Myron Medcalf, Star Tribune. Originally published February 20, 2021.

In the 1950s, Debbie Montgomery, a former St. Paul City Council member and the first woman hired by the St. Paul Police Department, watched her parents thrive in the city’s Rondo neighborhood.

The flourishing Black family owned a multilevel home and a pair of lots, crucial acquisitions toward building generational wealth, before local planners used federal money to cut through one of the state’s most prominent and affluent Black communities to create Interstate 94.

“It decimated the village,” Montgomery told me during our conversation last week. “We don’t have a village anymore. We’ve got community but we don’t have a village. We lost that.”

I’m in favor of a Black History Month that celebrates Black culture and achievement. But I’m against repurposing one month to whitewash history in the name of comfort. That has happened in Minnesota and elsewhere.

In the Rondo neighborhood, racism, not a highway, uprooted more than 600 homes and 300 businesses, splitting the nucleus of St. Paul’s Black community nearly 60 years ago. It is unproductive and traumatic to discuss and acknowledge this historic damage without naming racism, and its evangelists, as the forces behind these sins.

Building a new highway that mostly benefited white Minnesotans — at the expense of a strong Black neighborhood — is racism. If the assault on the Rondo neighborhood — and any other atrocities against marginalized Minnesotans — is not called out as the byproduct of racism, employed by white Minnesotans against communities of color, then it becomes ripe for repetition as future generations dilute the true origins of a monumental event that reshaped the Twin Cities.

“We are the only group of people in the city of St. Paul without an economic engine,” Montgomery said about the lasting effect of the Rondo neighborhood’s undoing.

Debbie Montgomery, shown in 2016, was the first woman police officer as well as the first African American woman police officer in the St. Paul Police Department when she was hired in 1975. Photo by Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune.

Six years ago, then-St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman apologized for the “stain of racism” that had fueled the decision to obliterate the community. Rondo Days, an annual festival, keeps the story alive, and a group called Reconnect Rondo has pushed for a $650 million “land bridge” that would reconnect the neighborhood. All admirable efforts.

For Montgomery and other residents who lived through the upheaval, however, the loss can’t be recompensed. Even if an economic project creates the jobs, development and infrastructure she covets in her community, it will never fully restore what was lost.

Montgomery said the old Rondo neighborhood’s structure created accountability. Churches in the neighborhood encouraged young people to help others. If you needed anything, a dentist or a loaf of bread, you could go to someone Black. And the “economic engine” that Rondo possessed for Black folks included the homes and businesses that any community utilizes to create financial stability for future generations.

A few days ago, the teenage son of Montgomery’s neighbor got shot by another teenager. The former senior commander on St. Paul’s police force said the connection once enjoyed in the Rondo neighborhood’s Black community has waned, which she views as a contributing factor in the increase of violent crime in pockets of the city.

When I first joined the Star Tribune’s St. Paul bureau as a City Hall reporter in 2006, Montgomery drove me through her ward and explained the history of its Black community. I noticed then that Black folks in St. Paul talked about the disruption of their community as if it had happened recently, not decades ago.

That emotion traveled into meetings about the construction of the light rail line along University Avenue. In those meetings, African American residents asked pertinent questions about the number of stops and the potential erasure of local businesses. They all knew a significant construction project could swallow their community again.

That’s what racism has done here. And that’s what it could do again if it’s not explicitly named in every effort to rebuild. Positioning racism as the central catalyst for the offenses experienced by communities of color in St. Paul and beyond won’t heal every wound or guarantee a different future for those who’ve been harmed. But without saying the word, any attempt to spur change will fall short.

They didn’t just build a major highway through a Black neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. They killed dreams. And racism was the transgressor.

“It’s just devastating,” Montgomery said. “You have to figure out how to regroup.”

In David Vassar Taylor’s book, “African Americans in Minnesota,” there is a photo on page 45 that shows a group of Black people smiling while playing bridge at the Hallie Q. Brown Center. The year was 1958, two years after the Rondo neighborhood had been selected as the path for a new highway, part of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Those joyous folks in that photo would soon lose a significant portion of their cherished community.

“We have not been able,” Montgomery said, “to expand, grow and build back that village.”

A real Black History Month experience demands a serious exploration of the past without ignoring its lingering shadow. It asks, “How did we get here and how can we make sure we never go back?” Unless racism is acknowledged as the assailant in these destructive moments, then the same communities that previously endured pain will remain vulnerable.

Every February, Black people are reminded of our wounds as people surround us and say, “We acknowledge that you all are bleeding.”

Well, Minnesota, are you ready to talk about the knife?

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.

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