What’s the Point of Native Acknowledgments by White People?

Concrete-colored bricks arranged as a sidewalk. At the center two bricks read: "JOE & ESPINOLA / PRICE & FAMILY / 841 RONDO AVE" and "HARRIET & TURNER / PRICE & FAMILY / 706 RONDO AVE."
Neighbors and ancestors who lived on Rondo Avenue before Interstate 94 destroyed the community.

This month I am featuring a guest blog post by writer Debra J. Stone to broaden conversations on Minnesota history and identity. A lifelong Minnesotan, Debra offers her insights into memory, community trauma, and the place of reparations.

Debra’s mother standing in front of her childhood home on Rondo Avenue.

Before there was a Rondo Avenue, before the Métis voyageurs, before German, Swedes, Irish, and Black people immigrated to live on the land of cloudy water, Mni Sota, there were the Dakota. They made camp, foraged, and hunted along the river with the exposed white rock that they called Imniza Skadan; later this area became the city of Saint Paul.

According to the study Saint Paul African American Historic and Cultural Context, 1837-1975, the land that later became the Rondo neighborhood was first acquired by Edward Phalen, who later sold it to Joseph Rondeau, a voyageur working for the Hudson Bay Company. The land then was given to his son Louis, who shortened his last name to Rondo.

Lately I’ve found the invoking of white people’s long or short organizational acknowledgments of stolen Dakota land in Minnesota to be self-serving and annoying. White people are not giving back the stolen land, so what’s the point. Actually, my house, my neighborhood, and Theodore Wirth Park were part of the Dakota land. Where streets are now in north Minneapolis and Robbinsdale were once trails used by the Dakota people for travel to summer hunting grounds and settlements. Nothing remains to show where these trails were located. There has been a movement by present Dakota people to give lakes and important land monuments their tribal names. But even this has been met with hostility by the white population. To change Bde Maka Ska from Lake Calhoun generated a lawsuit, but it was finally changed to reflect the importance of the lake to the Dakota people. 

Like the Dakota people, Minnesota’s Black community of Rondo was displaced from their homes and businesses. Over 650 family homes and 300 businesses were lost to the construction of Interstate 94. 

This is what I remember: 

Every Sunday our family would visit Grandma Espanolia and Grandpa Joseph Price on Rondo Avenue. From our Northside home we would drive along University Avenue to Saint Paul and if we were lucky Essie (grandma’s nickname) baked for dessert a vanilla pound cake. My mother grew up in this house on 841 Rondo Avenue. Her parents bought their house after migrating to Saint Paul from Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1939. The house was a small one-and-a-half story, older, white clapboard bungalow, like the other neighborhood houses, with an enclosed front porch and large glass windows overlooking the Avenue. Grandpa Joe planted a lilac bush next to the front steps for Essie. For her, the fragrance was the first sign of spring as she sat on the front porch. Essie let me and the other grandchildren make bouquets from the branches to take home. Their backyard was enormous. Joe planted and cared for it all: Essie’s rose bushes, crab apple and peach trees, a garden of tomatoes, collards, squash, green beans, carrots, potatoes, strawberries, and wild raspberry canes.

Atop the hill on the Avenue were neighborhood businesses: grocery stores, barber shops and hair salons, and the lawyer’s office. There were several restaurants and the VFW club where on Saturday the dances and music played throughout the night. Towards the end of the block were the offices of Doctor Brown, the pediatrician, and Doctor Jones, who had to pull out my front baby teeth. With the Brook’s funeral parlor anchoring the corner, it was a bustling community.

At dusk, a man lit the top of the gas streetlights with a pole, turning them on. He walked through the neighborhood, lighting each streetlight. This was the most interesting phenomenon my eight-year-old self had ever seen, since all of the Northside streetlights came on without any assistance. I even thought I’d like a job like that. Yet, when the freeway came through Rondo Avenue all of the charm of those lights was gone.

It was 1960 when this happened and I didn’t understand the politics, but I remember the anger and disgust in the adult conversations that, as a child, I was not supposed to know about. The dining room pocket doors were closed. Through those doors I overheard my mama, daddy, and grandparents. 

“Essie and I realize moving is gonna be hard. The banks never want to give colored people mortgage loans. Only want colored folks living in colored neighborhoods,” said Grandpa Joe. “But I got money saved.” I didn’t understand why my grandpa needed money.

“Everything colored folks built Ws tearing apart. A goddamn shame, this government eminent domain, shit!”

I had never heard Grandpa Joe cuss. But I knew he called white people Ws.

The chalk marks on the sidewalks where water and gas mains were located, the houses of my former playmates marked with a big red x on the doors, and some houses’ windows broken, anything inside of value stripped from them.

There was no explanation from parents or grandparents of what was happening to Rondo Avenue. Children were to remain “children,” and out of grown folks’ business. I think as a child I was happy to play in the big trenches made by the earthmovers and look for the agate rocks that were prized by us as much as the colorful marbles we played with on the sidewalks.

Throughout the years, there has been no acknowledgment of the Black neighborhood’s lost wealth and the displacement of people and community institutions. Rondo Avenue and North Minneapolis 6th Avenue are just a few of many Black communities bulldozed, burned down around the United States.

Here’s a partial list:

North Washington Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, Minneapolis, Minnesota

38th Street South, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Camden, New Jersey

Syracuse 15th Ward, New York

Overtown North, Miami, Florida

Birmingham, Alabama

North Nashville, Tennessee

Overton Park, Tennessee

Tremé, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lansing, Michigan

Black Bottom, Detroit, Michigan

Linnentown, Georgia

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, Illinois

North Omaha, Nebraska

San Mateo, California

And there was this:

In 2022, I discovered that the Minnesota Department of Transportation had the records of 841 Rondo Avenue. Joseph and Espanolia successfully sued for $7,000.00 more than the $5,580.00 offered to them by the state highway department’s eminent domain. It was well known that the highway department had declared Rondo Avenue a slum; therefore, people like my grandparents were not offered market value for the homes that they had rehabbed into livable spaces. My Grandpa Joe knew how to build a house. Before he and Essie moved to 841, Joe and his brother installed new windows, replaced the roof, fixed plumbing, rewired electric wiring, painted the interior and exterior, refinished woodwork and floors. Whatever 841 Rondo needed, he fixed it.

This was not a slum. Rondo Avenue was home for families living in what otherwise was a hostile environment. The surrounding neighborhoods refused “colored” people entry through legal segregation. The people of Rondo found a place where they could be themselves. Through their legal action, my grandparents found monetary justice and satisfaction for what the highway department defined as a “slum.”

This white house was owned by Joseph and Espanolia Price.

So, what’s the point?

Recently, in Saint Paul there has been a resurgence, discussion, and movement to rebuild Rondo Avenue. In 2021, a 501c3 was formed, Reconnect Rondo. According to the RCR website, “Rondo native Marvin Roger Anderson is a tireless advocate for the neighborhood he grew up in. He co-founded an annual celebration called Rondo Days in 1983, and has been honing the land bridge vision, along with several other community members and project partners, for more than a decade.” The Rondo Avenue Land Bridge project has gained some funding to explore the feasibility of a land bridge over Interstate 94. Building this land bridge would reconnect old Rondo Avenue that has been split in two by Interstate 94. Since businesses and homeowners were never adequately compensated for their economic losses, another goal is to build affordable housing and bring opportunities for small business owners. However, some of the current residents have complained about gentrification and who actually qualifies for restitution, if any. My people who lived on Rondo Avenue are all now ancestors, and any talk of rebuilding Rondo can never capture what has been lost: the generational wealth, the neighbors, and the sense of community. There can be no restitution for that. And with high asthma in the Black community, how reasonable is it to build something over an interstate highway with the air pollution? How and where is that bad air supposed to go?

Is it just me?

Apologies and acknowledgments are most likely well-intended. It alleviates white guilt of the wrong done to indigenous nations, Black and brown and Asian people. But in order to make significant deep changes, there must be a willingness to do something about institutional racism and make fair compensation for stolen lands. Otherwise, I will turn a deaf ear to the apologies and acknowledgments for what they are: more empty words.

Writer Debra J. Stone.

Debra J. Stone is a Minnesota writer. Currently, she’s writing a novel about Rondo Avenue, a-coming-of-age story of a young girl who spends time there with grandparents, the people who live there, and the end of an era for a Black community. Her poetry, essays and fiction are found in Brooklyn Review, Under the Gum Tree, Green Mountains Review, About Place Journal, Random Sample Review, Rigorous, and other literary journals. She is a board member of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference. Learn more about her work at https://www.debrajeannestone.com/.

Patti Kameya is a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

By Patti

Patti Kameya was born on Tongva land before it became "the OC." She writes, forages wild plants, and treats historical amnesia in the Dakota homeland of Saint Paul, Minnesota.


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