The exquisitely renovated St. Paul Union Depot is, fittingly, on the National Register of Historic Places. Next week, the heart and soul of the place gets long-overdue respect, as well.
For nearly 80 years, the predominately African-American porters, known as the “Red Caps,” were the first and friendliest faces greeting weary train travelers. Yet, their service as baggage carriers, ambassadors and heroes of lost children has gone unrecognized.
That changes on Friday with the dedication of the Red Cap Room on the depot’s second floor. The room will play host to galas and conferences but, mostly, will honor in a permanent way these diligent community leaders, fathers, brothers and sons.
The dedication opens the 30th Rondo Days Festival, and nobody is happier than Rondo Days co-founder Marvin Roger Anderson.
“The people who sweated, who worked there every day, made the depot what it was,” said Anderson, 73. Like most of the Red Caps, he grew up in Rondo, a roughly three-mile stretch just southwest of the Capitol.
“It was more than a structure,” he said of the Charles Frost-designed station, which supported more than 200 trains daily during its heyday.
“It was the pulsating attitude of the people who worked in the building. And there was no group of people who represented this better than the St. Paul Red Caps.”
Rondo Days celebrates the history of Minnesota’s largest African-American community. While Rondo’s physical presence was eliminated by the construction of the Interstate 94 freeway in the late 1960s, its heart beats strong today.
The festival, which takes place around St. Paul, began when Anderson and co-founder Floyd Smaller decided to do something to counter misperceptions about their beloved neighborhood.
“There was a perception that I-94 was routed through Rondo because it was a slum area,” Anderson said. “That always crawled at me. Those of us who grew up in Rondo knew there were areas that could use renovation, but it was a great community.”
That community included many social clubs, successful businesses, restaurants and churches, and dozens of men who worked proudly as Red Caps.
“For years, when a person came to town and needed help, or a child was lost, or they wanted to know what to do, where to go, what to eat, the Red Caps were the first people to greet them when they got off the train. For people who were alone, they carried bags. They cut the grass, shoveled the snow, sanded the sidewalks, mopped the floors and ran the elevators.”
While the Red Caps worked for low wages and relied on tips, Anderson bristles at the contention that theirs was “menial” work.
“When I saw them coming home, I didn’t see a person with a menial job. I saw the trustees of our churches, the leaders of our social and political and economic life.
“These were men who enriched their families and enriched the Rondo community.”
That can be said of Anderson, too. He attended law school, then joined the Peace Corps before returning to Minnesota where he worked as the state’s law librarian for 23 years.
Anderson and Smaller served as advisers for a permanent exhibit about Rondo that opens July 16 at the Minnesota History Center. “Rondo: A Community of Memory and History” is part of the center’s permanent exhibit, “Then Now Wow,” and will feature photographs, first-person reflections, oral histories and videos.
Anderson shared a 1952 photograph featuring 36 Red Caps in front of the depot. Their numbers swelled to 60 or more in the summer, he said.
One of them is James Melvin Young, 87, who hopes to join the festivities. Young moved to St. Paul from New Jersey in 1949, at the suggestion of his uncle, William Young, who was a Red Cap.
Young worked at the depot for 20 years and said he was treated fairly, especially because this was a union job “that gave us some protection.” He married in 1956 and is the father of four, grandfather of four and great-grandfather of one. He and his wife now live in Sun City, Ariz.
After the last train pulled out of the depot in 1971, Young became a skycap at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and traveled the world by air. But traveling the country by train was pretty swell, too.
“I have no regrets,” Young said. “I rode the trains west to Portland and Seattle and California, north to Canada and east to New York and Philadelphia. I bought a brand new home.
“And now I’m in beautiful retirement.”