When she learned about the murder of George Floyd, Kayla Jackson was compelled to make a difference. She joined AmeriCorps and moved to St. Paul, Minn., to fulfill a term of service helping children in the area learn to read.
When her term ended in the summer of 2021, Jackson, who by this time had lived in Missouri, California, and three upstate New York cities, decided to stay in St. Paul.
“This area has a very close-knit, vibrant Black community—and I say Black because not every Black person identifies as African or American,” she said. “I connected with people here.”
Jackson got a job as archivist at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, helping to preserve the history of the Rondo neighborhood. Rondo once housed 85 percent of the city’s Black population before the state seized their homes and destroyed the neighborhood to make way for Interstate 94 in the 1950s. When that happened, much of St. Paul’s Black history was either destroyed or moved.
The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center started the Community Archive Project in 2016 to preserve Rondo’s history. Community members are asked to donate photos, artifacts, and documents to be preserved in the archive.
The project was volunteer-based as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s programs to support community-based archives. It’s Jackson’s job to process, organize, and digitize the materials to preserve and make them accessible to the community. Virtual and in-person exhibits, as well as an online catalogue database containing more than 3,000 searchable objects, are planned to be made available to the public this spring.
Reflecting on the importance of this work, Jackson explained that often in marginalized communities, especially the Black community, there is a lack of trust in museums.
“So the histories are told through a very white lens, and the materials that museums collect are only a fraction of what the multi-faceted Black experience is. There are so many Black people I know who have beautiful photographs that are truly one-of-a-kind but they don’t feel comfortable giving them to a museum, so they are kept at home in less than ideal conditions for long-term preservation.”
Some of the historic materials in the archive include a signed portrait of journalist and civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells, and handwritten journals from the Ladies Aid Society of Pilgrim Baptist Church, which include descriptions of speeches made by Nellie G. Francis, a suffragist, civic leader, and civil rights activist.
There is also a photo of an interracial couple on their wedding day, taken a decade before the historic Loving v. Virginia case, and a photo of a Black teenage man kissing a white teenage woman on the cheek a year after the murder of Emmett Till.