How St. Paul became the first city of its size to take up reparations

Look no further than the freeway

Before the pandemic, a drill team performs at the Rondo Days festival, in which residents celebrate the historic Black neighborhood, cleaved by eminent domain to make way for I-94. Photo by Wolfie Browender/SaintPaulByBike.com.

As Linda Garrett zips down I-94 through St. Paul, she sometimes tells her grandchildren “This is where I used to live.”

Instead of gesturing at one of the fenced-in homes along Concordia Avenue, she points down at the roadway itself. 

In the late 1950s and ’60s, Minnesota gradually acquired the historically Black Rondo neighborhood via eminent domain, eventually bulldozing the place where more than 80% of Black St. Paul residents lived to make way for the interstate. After growing up in a home on Rondo Avenue, purchased by her great-grandmother in 1907, Garrett was one of the children forced to move.

Marvin Anderson, a one time Rondo resident who collaborates with a former neighbor to run the annual Rondo Days festival, told the Star Tribune last year that he believed city planners selected the area for the I-94 project because they could buy the land inexpensively and without political push-back. 

After being forced from their homes in the neighborhood, many former residents struggled to purchase houses elsewhere in the region because of racial covenants that at the time often prevented Black people from buying properties. 

Decades later, the St. Paul City Council has unanimously passed a measure hoping to confront these and other lingering effects of historic racism, forming a new commission to study reparations for the descendants of enslaved people now living in St. Paul. 

The resolution points out that after slavery was abolished in the U.S., former slaveholders were reimbursed for what the government considered a loss of property, while formerly enslaved people were given no compensation for their lifetimes of exploitation and abuse. It also draws attention to Minnesota’s involvement in slavery; though it was illegal in what was then a territory, some people were kept in bondage at Fort Snelling. Among them: Dred and Harriet Scott, the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled Black people were not conferred Constitutional rights, later overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment. 

City of ‘Subtle Racism’

Garrett, now 70, remembers a form of what she calls “subtle racism” prevalent throughout institutions of the city in previous decades. Her father, James Stafford Griffin, who worked for the St. Paul Police Department for 42 years, experienced it repeatedly. First, after passing his civil service test to start working on the force, he was told he had failed the physical exam on account of his flat feet. Later, he finally passed the dubious physical evaluation to become one of just four Black officers in the entire city. Toward the end of his career, Garrett said, her father sought a promotion to the role of deputy chief of police. Despite attaining the top exam score among candidates for the second-in-command position, which had previously been awarded based on the test, Garrett’s father didn’t get the nod, she said. Instead, he discovered that the chief had already made up his mind to promote another candidate. The stationary had been printed. Only when her father hired a lawyer and threatened a discrimination lawsuit was he allowed to share the job with the colleague whose score he bested. 

“That is one kind of discrimination that’s happened a lot,” Garrett said. “In hiring, with the trade unions, which controlled whether you could become a carpenter or a plumber, and with housing.” 

Growing up in Rondo, where businesses — often themselves Black-owned — catered to Black customers, Garrett described feeling insulated from some of the racism that she came to better understand in adulthood. But she also remembers taking swimming lessons at a public pool in Highland Park as a child in the ’60s and being confused by other kids telling her and her siblings to “get out of our pool.” 

A classic car featured in a pre-pandemic Rondo Days Parade. Photo by Wolfie Browender/SaintPaulByBike.com.

On a family road trip to California, her father brought with him a letter from his supervisor, signed on St. Paul police letterhead, assuring that he was a law enforcement officer of good moral character. One evening in Nevada, they were turned away from motel after motel despite vacancy signs that hung in the windows. Garrett watched from the car’s backseat as her father drove to a small-town police station, handed the sheriff his letter and begged him to call a motel to tell them he had a family at the station that he wanted a room for. 

Economists say discriminatory policies have had lingering effects on the ability of Black families to build the intergenerational wealth so common among white families in a prosperous place like Minnesota. An analysis last year by the Brookings Institution found the average net worth of a white family in the U.S. to be nearly ten times that of the average Black one.

“Until white America can start understanding the humiliation, the hurt, the roadblocks that were placed that explain many of the issues that we have today,” Garrett said, “We won’t get anywhere.”

‘Power in apology’

St. Paul’s city council members hope the reparations commission will help the city understand those experiences and change the conditions that caused them.

“Part of this is about accountability,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents Ward 2. “Local governments like ours were not innocent in perpetuating systems of exclusion. We need to apologize, and there is a power in apology.”

Yet Noecker said the resolution is far from empty words. “With the commission, we are looking backward to take responsibility but also looking at the present to see how our racial divisions are hampering us and looking to the future to determine what we can do to address these inequities.” 

The resolution puts St. Paul at the forefront of a national movement. Last year, Asheville, North Carolina and Evanston, Illinois became the first American cities to approve programs seeking to make reparations for slavery. Evanston plans to use tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to fund reparations. Minneapolis created truth and reconciliation commission last year to confront its racist history and enduring inequities.

Local activist and independent journalist Georgia Fort brought the initiative to the City Council with Trahern Crews, who spent three years studying the racial wealth gap. Even though St. Paul is the largest city to take up reparations, Fort and Crews were unfazed. They lobbied members of the City Council for months. “When we first started the process,” Crews wrote in an email, “I didn’t know it was going to be unanimous.” 

Like most cities during the pandemic and the recession it caused, St. Paul is facing a tough budget outlook. But Noecker said the City Council felt the need to act because they are nearest the people.  

“In city government, we’re on the ground level,” she said. “So we can see these big systemic challenges that are hurting people in a way that others might not. We can see how the fraying of the social safety net has affected our residents during the pandemic, how racial divisions factor in.” 

Some residents opposed the resolution. “Apparently the council is unaware that this great nation fought a civil war to end the immoral subjugation of slave[ry],” St. Paul resident Betty Newburgh wrote to the council. 

“Our First Minnesota is still regarded with awe,” she noted later in the letter, “because of our suicidal charge at Confederate troops at Gettysburg that allowed precious minutes for the Union to regroup.” 

Rev. Curtiss DeYoung, CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches and coauthor of “Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism,” is one of several religious leaders to endorse the initiative. He pointed out that the Twin Cities have some of the most stark racial disparities in the nation. 

His organization launched the “Truth and Reparations Project” last October, a 10-year-long racial justice initiative. “I hope we can work in partnership with the city,” DeYoung said, adding that the two initiatives can “learn from each other.”

Rev. Grant Abbott, the former executive director of the organization now called Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, described the resolution as vital at a time of massive income and wealth disparities between white and Black Minnesotans. Regardless of whether their particular ancestors enslaved anyone, white people, Abbott said, have been “riding on the wave of inequity.” 

He cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We’re not all guilty, but we’re all responsible.”

A version of this story first appeared in Community Reporter.