Selby Avenue: Labor History

Tour curated by: Special thanks to author Dave Riehle

The “Selby Avenue” neighborhood got its label in the 1960's, after the construction of Interstate 94 largely destroyed the African American district known as “Rondo,” so called after its main thoroughfare. The demolition and clearing of a block-wide swath between Rondo and St Anthony Streets containing most of the black owned businesses and other institutions displaced hundreds of African American residents, and cut out the heart of the community. Prior to its destruction, Rondo, as the axis of the African American lifeway in St Paul, was the center for the African American labor movement built up painstakingly through the first half of the 20th century.

Defacto segregation of black workers confined most men to wage labor in a rigidly circumscribed and limited number of occupations such has railroad and hotel porter, waiter, cook, elevator operator, and messenger. In the 19th century, black men had dominated the barbering profession, both as proprietors and employees, serving affluent white clientele. By the 1960's, however, African American barbers had largely been replaced by whites, except for those patronized by black customers.

African American photographers had occupied a leading position in many American cities. But African American women who were employed outside the home a century ago were restricted to occupations such as scrub-women, laundresses, servants, and eventually, elevator operators.

Not much changed until World War II, when, due to labor shortages, the anomaly of discrimination during a “war for democracy” and the unrelenting pressure of African Americans, jobs began to be obtained in war industries. Over 1,000 black workers were hired at the privately operated army ammunition plant in Arden Hills alone. Many workers of African descent were employed by Swift, Armour and others in the giant South St Paul meatpacking complex during the war, usually in the hardest and dirtiest positions.

Locations for Tour

Located on the north side of Selby Avenue between Virginia and Farrington Streets, this pleasant, tree-filled square-block park honors St Paul's outstanding African American union leader. In 1973 the Ramsey Hill Association proposed naming the…

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“In the legal profession, Labor found a friend, A lawyer on whom the toilers could depend. A fearless advocate of truth and right, And foe to every wrong upheld by might. This man was Erwin, dauntless, bold and free, Whose name shall live in…