Rondo Days revisit struggles that forged community

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Despite near 100-degree temperatures, thousands of people turned out last weekend for events celebrating Rondo Days in St. Paul. “I was glad to see people get together,” said Roberta Johnson, who was born and raised in the old Rondo community at 647 St. Anthony Street.

“It’s important that we keep this going, and I’m glad to see it happen at MLK,” Johnson added, referring to the fact that the festival had been moved from Dunning Field to the Martin Luther King Center park where it had originally been staged.

Organizers explained that this year’s theme, “Returning Home Again,” reflected both this physical return of the festival to the place of its origin and the celebration’s return to the original spirit of honoring the history of the community and the struggles of those who built it.

The Rondo community was, for the better part of the last century, the home of the overwhelming majority of African Americans in St. Paul. The historic community was bounded on the north and south by University and Marshall Avenues respectively, and on the east and west by Rice Street and Lexington Parkway. The community took its name from Rondo Avenue, which served as the community’s main thoroughfare.

“Rondo Avenue was more than a city thoroughfare,” said Deborah Cooper, Rondo Days organizing committee member and editor of this year’s commemorative booklet. “It was a street that gave its people their identity, their pride, and a space from which to organize their social and cultural lives.”

This year’s celebration consisted of three events: the Senior Dinner held at Mount Olivet Baptist Church; the annual Rondo Day Parade and festival; and the Drill Team competition, which took place at St. Paul Central High Stadium.

History as the present
Utilizing history as a tool in the struggle for social and economic justice today was an important sub-theme for this year’s celebration, which struck a responsive cord with many festival participants.

“They needed to incorporate some of this history back into the event,” said Darrin Funches, who attended Saturday’s festival with his family. “We’ve been celebrating Rondo kind of as ritual over the last several years instead of remembering the struggles that built our community.”

The commemorative book, put together by organizing committee members Lisa Tabor and Deborah Cooper, emphasized the connection of the past struggles to those of today. The book combines short essays on important aspects of the history of Rondo and current issues with photos, poetry, and messages of support from community notables.

One of the important aspects of the history of the old Rondo community highlighted in the commemorative booklet is the leadership role played by the communities’ union men and women, especially the role of black people employed by the railroad.

During the first half of the last century, St. Paul stood as an important center of the railroad industry. Blacks were an important part of the workforce. A particularly important chapter in that story is the struggle of the railroad dining car workers to organize and build the Dining Car Employees’ Union, Local 516.

Intolerable working conditions, combined with dictatorial management and racist attitudes from passengers, pushed dining car workers toward organizing a union to defend their interests. Many of these union workers played an important role in the cultural, social and political life of the community, including participating in important efforts to advance civil rights for black people in the city.

“No doubt about it,” said Cooper in the essay dealing with the subject, “[the dining car workers’] dignity and quiet pride trickled back into the community and had a profound effect on us all.”

A number of the people who participated in those struggles or were members of the union participated in the Seniors Dinner last Thursday evening sponsored by Mount Olivet Baptist Church. “When I started working on the railroad, we made $1.87 an hour,” said Jim Bransford at the dinner.

Positive response to call for support
Leaders of the organizing committee explained that, although the festival has experienced some challenges over the last few years, a strong infusion of community support helped to make this year’s event a success.

“We’ve had a great deal of support this year from a number of individuals and institutions in the community,” said Rondo Board Member Lisa Tabor. Sponsors this year included community organizations like KMOJ, the St. Paul NAACP, KFAI Radio and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, as well as corporate sponsors like Medtronic, Ecolab, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We would like to give a special thanks to Qwest for all of the help they provided,” said Tabor.

Organizers plan to go back and evaluate this year’s event in preparation for next year’s celebration. “Rondo is an opportunity for the community to come together and assess where we are at now, and where we want to go in the future,” said Rondo Board Member Shirley Baysinger. “We are the future, and we need to know where we came from.”

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