The Irish Fair’s site along the pewter-gray, spreading Mississippi beneath downtown Saint Paul on the ample greensward of Harriet Island is majestic and invites celebration. The bustling and music-crammed Irish Fair with its snowy canvas tents, its black-tinted signposts, and plentiful green turf offers an Ireland of the mind to its visitors.
In 1952 I became an O.L.P. girl by default. On the day I was to get measured for my Derham Hall uniform, Mother and Dad told me that I couldn’t go there after all and they immediately took me, in tears, down to Our Lady of Peace High School to register. It was a financial decision. Grudgingly, I joined the 190 girls who made up the second graduating class at O.L.P., which quickly had been dubbed the “Old Ladies Prison” by the boys at Cretin.
Dorothy Day and I go way back. Granted, I never met her, but I can’t help but feel a connection after volunteering every third Saturday for the past twenty years at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown Saint Paul. I first went there on a lark, something to try once because I had just moved to the Twin Cities and wanted to meet new people. I never got around to stopping.
During an 1883 visit to Saint Paul, the great Mark Twain observed: “How solemn and beautiful is the thought, that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary—but always whiskey! Such is the case.”
Harriet E. Bishop is a name familiar to anyone interested in the history of Saint Paul. Born in Vermont, Bishop came to Minnesota in 1847 and here achieved many firsts—Saint Paul’s first teacher, founder of the first Sunday school in Minnesota, first leader of the women’s suffrage movement, and a driving force behind several social movements. She was well known in the city’s literary circles and wrote about Minnesota and Saint Paul, though her writings often include language that today would be considered racist, revealing attitudes toward Native Americans common to the era but whose effects are still felt to this day.
Booker Taliaferro Washington, born in approximately 1856, was enslaved in Virginia on a plantation. The young Booker yearned to learn to read and to serve. After slavery was abolished, Washington went to school and became an educator. In 1881, as the principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, he transformed the campus from a rundown building to an educational institution offering thirty-eight trades. His first book, Up From Slavery, tells his story and is highly acknowledged today. Washington also authored thirteen other books.
Growing up as young Black men in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, we learned a lot from the generation of Black men who preceded us. We, like they before us, were simply known as “the Rondo boys.” Rondo was where we learned to survive, to grow and develop—it was where we learned the value of our extended family membership, where we fell in love and got our hearts broken. It was also where we learned what’s in a name.