Where do we look to find the past?

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Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

Where Do We Look to Find the Past?

By Rachel A. Neiwert | Winter 2021  

This past semester I taught the history research methods class. The students were fabulous and we spent a lot of time answering questions that seem basic, but are actually pretty complex: What’s history? Who’s an historian? What kinds of sources do historians use to study the past? Where do historians find those sources? The last two questions are particularly interesting to think about in relationship to the “Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?” project.

         I have been working in the archives at the Minnesota Historical Society to learn more about the history of the housing inequality in Ramsey County. Archives are complicated spaces that exhibit power through decisions about what gets archived and what does not get archived. For example, the story of Nellie Francis and her house on Sargent Ave is entirely remarkable; but so far, the only sources I have found in the archives are newspaper articles. The City of St. Paul mayor’s office did not archive their papers in the 1920s; whatever correspondence existed at the time does not appear to have survived today. The newspaper articles about the Francis family reference letters that William and Nellie Francis sent to their neighbors, but it does not seem like copies of those letters have survived either. Fragments of the story of the Francis family are wha exist today.

The archival collection is always incomplete and often relies on written, official communications that privilege people in positions of power, who relied on written forms of communication. When family papers, including diaries and letters are saved and sent to archives, they often also reflect the experiences of people in positions of power who thought themselves important enough to have their papers saved for posterity. Archivists had to also imagine that these individuals were important enough to save their papers.

         For this project, I have primarily worked with local newspaper and government reports related to housing. It is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. My students and I have been going through newspapers, day-by-day…well, really turn of the microfilm reel by turn of the microfilm reel…to create a timeline of events associated with housing in St. Paul and Ramsey County more broadly. The stories we have discovered—stories about Crocus Hill in 1909 and the Sager Family on Charles Street in 1927 and Black students and their experiences of exclusion from housing at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s—all help us to know what to look for in other places by showing us the names of people and events that happened. We have also been looking at state agencies that were authoring reports or conducting hearings related to housing. All of these are interesting sources, but provide only bits and pieces of the stories of housing inequality in our community. 

         One of the sources my students and I have spent a lot of time with are the Black newspapers from the early twentieth century. Looking through these papers, you get a sense of the vibrant and engaged Black community that lived in St. Paul during this time. I know that Black community members were having a difficult time finding housing during this time period, but these stories do not often show up in these newspapers. I wonder if this is because newspapers are places to share the news and it was not news to Black community members in St. Paul that racism made it challenging to find housing.

My initial work over this last year tells me to keep looking as I learn more about the history. People who have experienced housing inequality either in the present or through the memories of their family histories also have much to contribute to the conversation. If you have a story that you would like to share with us, please contact us and share through the Contact Us form. We would love to hear from you. You can also reach out if you have ideas about other sources we should look for.