Black And Jewish Descendants Event Honors Historic St. Paul Neighborhoods On MLK Day

Historically, Jews and African-Americans have shared similar struggles and even co-existed in the same neighborhoods.

To honor that shared history, the two communities are co-sponsoring an event at 1 p.m. Monday at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center (270 N. Kent St.), an African-American social service agency and historic gathering place in St. Paul.

The event, “An Afternoon of Reflection, Remembrance and Renewal of Friendships of Rondo,” is the first of many others in the loosely-established Black and Jewish Descendants Series, which is a collaboration between the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and Rondo Avenue Inc, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the contributions of the African-Americans who lived in the Rondo neighborhood prior to its destruction by the construction of I-94 in the 1960s.

The Jewish Historical Society decided to pursue a new long-term project this year, and wanted to focus it on the old Jewish neighborhoods in St. Paul, said JHSUM Executive Director Robin Doroshow.

The neighborhoods include the west side of St. Paul, the Capital City neighborhood, the Rondo neighborhood, the Selby-Dale neighborhood, and, eventually came to include Macalester-Groveland and Highland.

Prior to this year, Doroshow said there hadn’t been any comprehensive history project done specifically with these neighborhoods.

Norma Bernstein Shpayher grew up in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul in the 1960s, and she distinctly remembers it as a multicultural hub. Shpayher had a lot of interest in the neighborhood’s history and had wanted to start a project like this, but it became a task too large to handle on her own.

“My interest was how people of many different backgrounds, many different religions lived in the neighborhood,” Shpayher said. “There’s history about the place, but not really history about the people in the place.”

In the 1960s, Jews and African-Americans lived side-by-side in a lot of the same communities, Doroshow said.

Last October, the Hallie Q. Brown Center and JHSUM hosted a small meeting including elders who grew up in the neighborhood, city council members’ staff, journalists and other community members with a vested interest in the historically diverse St. Paul neighborhoods.

“We decided that we would see if people wanted to keep talking, and they did,” Doroshow said.

After the initial meeting, the two groups decided to host another event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day dedicated to honoring both black and Jewish history.

The event will showcase traditional ethnic foods from both cultures — an assortment of lox and bagels as well as fried chicken and mac ‘n cheese.

Doroshow said the three organizations are planning to line the walls of the event space in the Hallie Q. Brown Center with enlarged historic photographs for attendees to look at and point out people or places they recognize.

Event organizers are hoping someone from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office will be present as well, with Carter’s connection to the area, being a fourth-generation resident of St. Paul whose ancestors grew up in the neighborhoods.

“We were talking about history, which is what my organization focuses on, but it’s really morphing into a current community-relations sort of thing,” Doroshow said.