Not just Rondo: Exhibits show how Interstates uprooted other Black communities

Dr. Ernest Lee Lloyd
Submitted photo

The story of St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood, decimated by the construction of Interstate 94, is one that most Twin Cities residents should be familiar with by now. Especially as the Reconnect Rondo project seeks to “recreate land that was once lost.”

Similar stories are still being told today in places such as Kansas City, Portland, Oregon, Detroit, Los Angeles, Syracuse, NY, Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia among other cities. All told, over the course of two decades, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 routed more than 40,000 miles of interstate freeway across America, destroying scores of Black and low-income communities along the way.

In Minnesota, at least until recently, not much has been discussed here about how Interstate 35W pierced the heart of South Minneapolis when construction began in the 1960s.

Star Tribune reporter, Katy Read, notes that the construction of 35W, coupled with the steering of I-94 through Near North neighborhoods, “disrupted businesses, displaced households, and left hundreds of Black families with nowhere to live in an era when most metro-area neighborhoods did not welcome residents of color,” a holdover from the city’s decades-long history of racially discriminatory housing covenants that barred many from White neighborhoods and suburbs.

That story is being told now in “Human Toll: A Public History of 35W,” one of two exhibits currently featured at the Hennepin History Museum that chronicle just some of the candid history of South Minneapolis in the 1960s and 1970s.

The other exhibit, “Separate Not Equal: The Hale-Field Pairing,” spotlights the unconventional strategy to desegregate two of Minneapolis’ public elementary schools in adjacent, but quite different neighborhoods.

Seeing it from ground level

“Not only do these exhibits bring this history to light,” noted Cindy Booker, a longtime South Minneapolis resident. “They bring it to life.” If anyone should know, it would be Booker, who lived through both experiences and served as an advisor on each exhibit.

Booker, the former executive director at Sabathani Community Center and current board member with the Minneapolis Public Schools district, grew up in the Field neighborhood at East 47th St. and 3rd Ave. S., just a few blocks from where 35W was under construction.

She still remembers her brothers venturing outside their home, toy dump trucks in hand, pretending to be part of the road crews. There were constant reminders that construction was taking place. In addition to the noise, sand and gravel, dirt and concrete were scattered across southside neighborhoods.

Although too young to understand the social and political realities of the 35W project, Booker does remember some families having their homes physically relocated from one lot to another, while others simply lost their homes altogether.

“It is imperative to understand,” explained historian, Dr. Ernest Lee Lloyd, “that the Interstate Highway Act was, at the time, not just the biggest public works project in U.S. history.” But it was also a “convenient way to dismantle African American and BIPOC neighborhoods and low-income communities all over urban America.”

Lloyd’s doctoral dissertation, “How Routing an Interstate Highway Through South Minneapolis Disrupted an African American Community,” details this iniquitous history and sets the stage for the exhibit.

Lloyd, who partnered with public historian Denise Pike and University of Minnesota Professor Greg Donofrio to curate “Human Toll,” added that this exhibit is an opportunity to absorb how Interstate 35W destroyed a thriving middle-class African American community in South Minneapolis in the 1960s. “It gives voice to the community impacted by the highway system, and provides an opportunity for policymakers under [President Biden’s] infrastructure bill to correct past wrongs caused by racist transportation policies, advancing a better future for all citizens.”

Desegregating South Minneapolis Schools

Submitted photo Cindy Booker

Cindy Booker recalled her mother telling her and her brothers, “School is going to be different this year,” as she prepared to enter the first grade. On September 2, 1971, Booker was one among many Black students bussed from their neighborhood school Eugene Field to Nathan Hale school approximately a mile-and-a-half away, in what became known as the Hale-Field pairing.

This initiative turned Hale into a K-3 school, and Field was transformed into a center for fourth through sixth graders, allowing both schools to achieve a 70 to 30 percent balance between White students and students of color.

Legendary community leaders like W. Harry Davis, Sr., and Dr. Richard Green were among those who championed the move, while many in the White community, including Minneapolis Mayor Charles Stenvig and a majority of parents in the Hale neighborhood, opposed combining the two schools.

By contrast, as Booker recalled, most Black parents expressed little opposition to desegregation but feared for the safety of their children. Although threats of violence were made, nothing serious ever materialized. And, by most accounts, the Hale-Field affiliation seems to have been a success.

“I think that everyone I’ve encountered who experienced this pairing first-hand looks back at it fondly,” said Hennepin History Museum Curator Alyssa Thiede. “That includes alumni, teachers, administrators, community members and others. These are the people that tell the history in our exhibit.”

For her part, Booker also said that the experience had a tremendous impact on her life and in some ways shaped the person and the professional she’s become today.

Of course, this school pairing, and other desegregation strategies didn’t last forever, and today Minneapolis Public Schools are again among the most segregated in America.

“Separate Not Equal: The Hale-Field Pairing” is being presented in the museum’s North Gallery and is also open Thursdays and Fridays, from 10 am to 3 pm, and Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm. This exhibit will continue through Saturday, April 1, 2023.

Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information on this exhibit, visit the Hennepin History Museum’s website at www.separatenotequalmn.org, call 612-870-1329, or email info@hennenpinhistory.org. The Hennepin History Museum is located at 2303 3rd Ave. S., Minneapolis.

The “Human Toll: A Public History of 35W” exhibit is open Thursdays through Saturdays, in the Main Floor Gallery of the Hennepin History Museum. It will close for good on December 31, 2022.

However, after the exhibit closes, visitors can continue to view the exhibit and learn more about this history by visiting the University of Minnesota online at bit.ly/umnexhibits and Twin Cities Public Television at bit.ly/tptalmanac35W.

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