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Alisha Volante and her Research on the Rondo Neighborhood & African American History in St. Paul

Alisha Volante

Alisha Volante

April 26, 2016

Alisha Volante wasn’t always passionate about the past. She grew up learning Black history by reading Angela Davis, W.E.B. Dubois, and Malcolm X. But the monotony of high school history class disenchanted her about the relevance of history to her life and the lives of those around her. But something changed when she entered college.

“Honestly, when I got to college and sat in my first history lecture I realized I had it all wrong. I had never heard the stories our instructor, Elizabeth Harry, was sharing about labor strikes and revolutions around the world. She provided me with an argument and evidence and made the history relevant to me…when I was able to pursue my own research I chose to focus on local African American history. History continues to be my one true love,” said Volante. 

In 2015, she put that love to work on two local projects through CURA’s Kris Nelson Community-Based Research Program. The first paired her with Model Cities and University of Minnesota Professor Yuichiro Onishi to gather historical documents detailing the impact an important labor union in the Rondo-Frogtown area had on the civil rights movement in St. Paul. A St. Paul resident herself, Volante was eager to give back to her own community using her studies and expertise. 

The research was grounded in the heavy presence of the railroad industry in St. Paul in the mid-1900s. At one time, one in four African American men working on the railroad were living in the Rondo-Frogtown neighborhood. The Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was a prominent labor organization representing these workers, made up of the Pullman Porters and “Red Caps.” The BSCP played a dynamic role advocating for racial and economic justice during the local civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. That history, which is not widely known in the community, is what Volante spent the summer gathering and documenting. 

Her research on the BSCP will eventually take form as public art exhibits housed right in the heart of the neighborhood. Model Cities is sponsoring two new mixed-use buildings on University Avenue, each one containing space for commercial businesses, affordable housing, and public art. Model Cities has committed to designing the art as interactive spaces for the community to learn about its own history. “It was particularly fulfilling to know the research I conducted was for the benefit of such a broad local audience,” said Volante. “Working on a project that will be part of our St. Paul community has been one of the highlights of my career.”

In the fall of 2015, Volante teamed up with Rondo Avenue, Inc. (RAI), a community organization in St. Paul, to unearth, gather, and share the history of the Rondo Neighborhood (read the report here). This was yet another chance to use her skills and passion to tell the stories of her community.

This once vibrant area was the heart of the African American community in the early-mid 1900s. But it was devastated in the 1960s when the construction of Interstate 94 cut it in half. Many of the stories from this time were spread between newspaper articles, archives, reports, biographies, surveys, and journal submissions in dozens of public and private locations around the metro. This made it difficult for any comprehensive research to be done about this important event in St. Paul. Volante spent months gathering the right resources, documenting their location and contents, and weaving them together to paint a fuller picture of the rich history of the neighborhood.

Future researchers can now use her documentation and guidance to find particular pieces of that history. The stories she has woven together will be chronicled in a public online resource created by RAI to both celebrate the vibrant history of Rondo and inform the public and policymakers about the devastating effects that misguided and discriminatory development practices can have on the social, cultural, political, and economic cohesion of communities. 

In addition to the work she did through her CURA partnerships, Volante pursued another partnership opportunity with Twin Cities Public Television (TPT). She wrote the essay “The Roots of Negative Stereotypes” from the perspective of a young girl learning about the history behind racial stereotypes in America. This essay, loosely based on Volante’s own life, was then animated by an artist and publicized by TPT. The result was a very creative method of showing young people how history directly relates to their experiences, countering the traditional and disillusioning way that Alisha was taught history as a young student. (To see “The Roots of Negative Stereotypes,” click here.) 

Throughout all of her work, Volante has lived out dedication to her community by bringing histories to life. Jeff Corn, CURA’s coordinator for the Kris Nelson program, sees this as a unique strength of hers. “Both projects Alisha worked on are about creating historical narratives that become present in a physical location in the community. Those stories have been repressed by other dominating narratives, and it’s critical that they get told. These locations can be spaces where the community can re-connect to its roots,” said Corn.

As for Volante, she is grateful for the opportunity got to give back to the larger community while also growing as an individual: “I gain[ed] priceless information about St. Paul’s Black community, both for the community and my own research goals. I am learning how to better engage the community through history, and I am helping preserve the legacy of what was once a vibrant community in our own city of St. Paul.”