A crowd surrounded Philando Castile’s grieving mother Saturday at St. Paul’s Rondo Days festival as she handed out miniature cupcakes marking what would have been her son’s 33rd birthday.
It was a gesture Valerie Castile and her family thought befitting of the school cook, who spent the last 14 years making sure no child went home hungry.
“We’re going to continue feeding people for a while,” said Philando’s uncle, Clarence Castile, whose Corner Boy BBQ stand has operated at the annual event for the past five years.
The two-day festival, which honors the history of Minnesota’s largest African-American community, took a more somber tone Saturday, less than two weeks after Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. His death sparked nationwide protests.
A day meant to pay homage to the old Rondo neighborhood, once the center of black culture and business in St. Paul, doubled as a space for mending broken hearts. Dozens of residents donned white shirts bearing Castile’s name; some depicted Castile with angels’ wings.
“[Rondo Days] is not about us as a family. It’s about the community — and helping them heal from this tragedy,” said another uncle, Tracy Castile. “St. Paul lost one of their family members.”
If Castile had lived, he’d have been helping prep and season the meat before serving customers at the family-run barbecue stand, as he had in the past, relatives said.
A few feet away, a tent decorated with colorful birthday banners was erected in his honor. Members of his extended family embraced Valerie Castile as onlookers sang happy birthday for her son.
Sharon Hart whispered condolences to the Castile clan before buying some barbecue. Born and raised in the Rondo neighborhood, Hart has been attending the festival every year since its inception in 1982.
In the late 1960s, Rondo was wiped out by the construction of Interstate 94, scattering its residents. The event often serves as a reunion for former community members now spread throughout St. Paul.
In the days after Castile’s death, hundreds of protesters shut down the stretch of I-94 that was once the heart of Rondo.
Hart said she remembers a time, before the neighborhood was gutted, when residents didn’t fear police. Officers knew people by name and waved to neighbors, she said, creating a more cohesive community. Now, nearly 60 years later, Hart feels there’s a strong separation between police and the communities they serve, particularly those of color.
“There’s a sadness here. We’re tired of the killings,” said Hart, who now lives in the Summit-University neighborhood. “Every time we think it’s going to change, it never does.”
Of Philando Castile, who went to school with her granddaughter, Hart said, “I knew what kind of man he was. He lived by the law, and the law killed him.”