Before the Rondo neighborhood was destroyed, before a freeway ripped the heart out of St. Paul’s black community, Frank White remembers delivering newspapers and trying to ride his bike up St. Anthony Hill.
Floyd Smaller, whose family moved here from Arkansas when he was 7 years old, remembers Saturday mornings so full of adventure that he dashed out of the house to see what the day would bring.
And Marvin Roger Anderson, who went on to become state law librarian, remembers grown-ups competing at a local club to see who would be named Mayor of Bronzeville. “There was even a parade,” he said, smiling at the memory.
On Friday, those memories of Rondo and stories of what once was moved a step closer to reconnecting with the neighborhood’s families of today and tomorrow, as national, state and local officials and community leaders broke ground on a Rondo Commemorative Plaza. Over time, a vacant lot on Concordia Avenue near Fisk Street will become a multimedia-infused place to stop, talk, remember and learn about what was once there.
Anderson, who with Smaller has led the effort to honor an area that once was home to nearly 80 percent of the city’s black population, said he hopes it fosters connections to the future.
“I’ll know that what we have done in all of these years — the Rondo Days parade, the reconciliation, the marches — won’t mean anything until a child walks up to the exhibit and says: ‘Tell me more,’ ” he said.
From 1865 to 1966, Rondo Avenue was a ribbon weaving together the city’s black community. The Rondo neighborhood stretched from Rice Street west to Lexington Parkway, about 150 square blocks, and was home to many middle class families of doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers and schoolteachers.
But when federal and state officials plotted the route for Interstate 94 in the 1950s, they chose to run it through what many elected officials considered the path of least resistance. The construction led to the bulldozing of hundreds of homes and the displacement of families.
David V. Taylor, a historian and former dean of the General College of the University of Minnesota, is a “son of Rondo” who grew up on St. Anthony Avenue, then Rondo, then Carroll.
“The Rondo community has been my spiritual home and remains with me today,” he said. The plaza, he said, will be a place of remembering, a place of understanding and “a place to pass on what we can be.”
Money to create the plaza came from a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant from the city, as well as financial support from the F.R. Bigelow Foundation, the Mardag Foundation, the Saint Paul Foundation, the Knight Family Foundation, the 3M African-American Employee Network and the Price Family Foundation. Members throughout the community also have given money to make the project possible.
Smaller, a longtime football coach at St. Paul Central High School, urged the fundraising to continue so that there can one day be a roof to cover visitors and keep them dry and warm as they visit.
“Claim it, own it, protect it,” he urged the 200 or so people who attended the ceremony. “Make it a place where people can sit and talk forever.”