Nearly 60 years ago, Interstate Highway 94 split through the heart of Saint Paul’s primarily African American Rondo neighborhood. On Saturday, July 14, hundreds gathered to reconnect the neighborhood at the opening ceremony for Rondo Commemorative Plaza.
The Plaza was created to honor the Rondo community and educate the youth about its history. St. Paul historian and Rondo Days co-founder Marvin Roger Anderson partnered with activist Nathaniel Khaliq to transform a vacant plot at 820 Concordia Avenue into a community memorial.
The Plaza features a timeline documenting Rondo’s history, along with a list of the families who lost property after the construction. According to Anderson, the neighborhood was one of about 2500 neighborhoods that were displaced between 1949 and 1973, of which the overwhelming majority were African American. “Our commemorative plaza is the nation’s first plaza constructed to commemorate a community that was destroyed by urban renewal and freeway construction.”
More than a dozen city and community leaders, including St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, City Council Member Dai Thao and Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), addressed the crowd, honoring the spirit of Rondo.
“From the moment I stepped into St. Paul, I was connecting with members of the Rondo community,” said Moran. She added that it’s important to “know the history, hear the history and be part of that history.”
Mayor Carter said the opening was an “opportunity to build our community forward” and called the community to help by “getting involved and reengaged.”
He also spoke of his personal connections to the neighborhood and efforts to prevent such an atrocity from occurring again in the Saint Paul. “I’m here today to celebrate something of a family reunion, because Rondo is something like our family.”
Like many who sat in the crowd, the Carter family lost property when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) constructed Interstate 94 through Rondo the 1960s. He proclaimed the day, July 14, to be Rondo Commemorative Plaza Day.
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle formally apologized to attendees on behalf of the State of Minnesota for the construction of Interstate 94. It’s “something [that] should never have happened,” he said. “We’ve learned our lessons. It’s not about just the past, it’s about where we are now and how to go forward.”
Dr. Mary K. Murray Boyd, former St. Paul Public Schools superintendent, served as keynote speaker. She said the plaza recognizes the “beauty and strength” of the community.
“This commemorative plaza offers the history of [its] past, of its destruction and valuable lessons of preparation as we move forward,” she said. “I became emotional as I looked over the list of homes, names, businesses…that were destroyed in the name of urban renewal to build a highway. This list represents real people.”
She encouraged the community to “listen and learn from the stories of our elders and our new immigrants. We can learn to practice patience with each other.”
Noting that Eastern Europeans and African Americans who migrated from the South established the Rondo neighborhood, Anderson was intentional in celebrating the city’s diverse immigrant population.
“When we live in Minnesota, we feel like we live in Somalia,” said Imam Dr. Hassan Mohamud, Da’wah Institute director. “This is home.”
Representatives from the Hmong, Myanmar and Oromo communities also spoke at the event.
The ceremony featured performances from a variety of cultures such as the Sons of Levi Gospel Quartet, the Oromo Youth Association, poet Ifrah Mansour and an opening flag presentation and pledge of allegiance Boy Scouts Troop #61.
The Rondo Commemorative Plaza, still under construction, is expected to open to the public in August. For more information, visit http://www.rondoplaza.org.
The 35th Annual Rondo Days celebration honoring the Rondo neighborhood will take place Sat., July 21, 10 am to 7 pm at the Rondo Education Center Field and parking lot, located at 560 Concordia Avenue in St. Paul.