In a ‘public history’ retrospective, the human costs loom large
“A Public History of 35W,” an extensive public history project about the construction of I-35W with a focus on South Minneapolis, is planning a public exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum set for fall 2021. The community-engaged project is made up of a group of historians from the University of Minnesota (UMN), along with a growing list of community partners.
The group is seeking the Black community’s and the broader community’s help to tell this history to and enable the project. The effort will focus on the displacement of African Americans who lived in the freeway’s eventual path.
The project is led by Dr. Greg Donofrio, professor and director of the Heritage Studies and Public History (HSPH) graduate program at UMN, and Denise Pike, public historian and graduate of the HSPH program. Both view the project as a contribution to ongoing conversations about systemic racism in the Twin Cities, including the disparity in homeownership between Whites and Blacks, which Donofrio partly attributes to the arrival of 35W.
The project helps recover “more context around race, racism, discrimination and displacement and how it connects to the rampant racial disparities we see in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities, and Minnesota in the current day,” Pike said.
Donofrio says that the project is the result of conversations with community members at the opening of the exhibition “Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis” at the Hennepin History Museum, which Pike curated with classmate and public historian Kacie Lucchini Butcher in the fall of 2018. “Many in attendance wanted to have conversations about how the freeway changed South Minneapolis,” said Donofrio.
The project’s leaders think of their history as a community-engaged endeavor, with existing and descendant communities at the forefront. This is unlike most traditional history, which tends to privilege historians’ voices over affected people and communities. Public history is inherently collaborative, and this has Pike excited about her work, which she believes has the ability to attract those otherwise not interested in history.
“Traditional history can be so focused on the past,” said Pike. “Public history can bridge that gap between the past and the present, make history relevant to everyone, and engage non-historians with the past in meaningful ways.”
One of these reasons, she said, is because historical archives have “neglected to capture Black voices and other voices of color,” adding that historians often need more than the archives to help tell meaningful stories about communities. “We can’t rely on archives alone to contextualize the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] experience in Minneapolis and how it is connected to our history,” said Pike.
Dr. Ernest Lloyd, 35W community advisor and research advisor for the project, is particularly enthused about the work because it is a continuation of his dissertation, “How Routing an Interstate Highway through South Minneapolis disrupted an African-American Neighborhood.” It focused on the ways in which 35W affected the African American Southside community.
Lloyd sees the upcoming exhibit as a way to give community members a sense of power and pride, driving them to take action and make a difference in their community. “My hope is that the project…will better serve policyholders when considering disrupting citizens’ lives through highway and local construction. It will also be a forum for the descendants of families to observe the exhibits, and perhaps gain a greater understanding of the effects of what occurred 50 years ago in an area where their ancestors once lived.”
The group is not only interested in telling this history along with community partners and members, but also in acting as stewards of this history. Using a reciprocal approach, the project acts as a means by which descendant communities can help historians and historians can help communities. This is crucial for building and preserving relationships among all groups involved and helping pave the way for meaningful policy changes.
“A more collaborative process that creates spaces for listening and understanding the needs of citizens impacted by such vast change may help to create more equitable opportunities for safe, clean, accessible and profitable places to live, work, educate and play,” explained Lloyd.
For Donofrio, the project is timely in many ways, including directly addressing Minneapolis’s 2040 Plan’s “freeway remediation” section and the recent murder of George Floyd on the city’s South Side. Floyd’s death has forced many White people nationally to reckon with the insidious ways that structural racism works. Donofrio also points out that the freeway’s current reconstruction offers a poignant reflection for people not in Minneapolis during the initial construction.
Further, Donofrio wants people who were not affected by 35W, but who were instrumental in its construction and use it today, to reflect on their own complicity. “We want people in positions of power to hear and see these stories, and to be held accountable for past and ongoing injustices,” he said, adding that motorists who use the freeway should have to wrestle with the cost of interstate freeway travel.
Lloyd said that a project like this is long overdue. “Actions to engage the affected impacted groups after a public works project has begun is too late,” he says. “Communities and impacted citizens must be invited to the table in those early design and discussion stages.”