Transforming curriculum at Henry High School in 2020 A particular place: Lyndale and 26th Avenues North

I may not have been born a storyteller, but as early as I can remember I recall folks telling stories around me. My parents had a country grocery store in a village, nine miles from one town and 12 miles from another. We lived in a small apartment attached to the store so I naturally grew up helping stock shelves, sacking potatoes, and as I grew older, “waiting on” the customers. Most clients were small dairy farmers, far removed from the bustle and sophistication of the city, much less the nearby towns. Conversations in our store, a gathering place of the hamlet, were saturated with stories — some true and some fictional. I learned to discern the difference but kept many in my memory. I have learned that many of the students of my 1/2 century of teaching love to stall the lesson of the day with an opening tale of a past customer and his or her story.
I have become a historian and archivist of the Minneapolis Northside. The past two months I have been meeting virtually with Henry High teachers Bethany Piety and Ruth Thorsgaard with the goal of making Human Geography curriculum contextual and enticing to the students by folding in Northside stories, none of which is fictional. Our focus to this point has been on the history of particular places and structures at these locations. The layering of use of a specific place connects the past to the present.
In this article I will tell you what I have learned through research about the southeast corner of Lyndale Avenue and 26th Avenue North. Currently as you drive by or stop at Farview Park you will see a purple sculpture with a seating area at that very place. Where did it come from and who is the artist? What does it represent? What is the story of that piece of land wherein it stands?
The story of this piece of land began, with the inhabitants of Indigenous Dakotans. Then the Europeans moved in. Prior to the mid-1800s, the pathway of Lyndale Avenue was one route for fur traders coming from “Up- North,” in other words, Duluth and further north. Their carts piled with pelts on the way to the city were pulled by oxen, making a tremendous noise so loud that conversations were stopped in Camden as they bypassed sparsely settlements and occasional homes. One well-known fur-trader coming down the rutted “road” from far north was George Bonga, said to have been from the first African American family to have settled in Minnesota. His mother was Anishinabe/Ojibwe, as was his wife Ashwinn. This respected third generation backwoodsman, Bonga spoke several languages, served as a respected translator, negotiator, canoe guide and storyteller. In 1850 he was one of 14 recorded African Americans recorded in the Minnesota Territory Census. He and his wife were owners of a Leech Lake lodge.
The original pest or contagion hospital of Minneapolis was built in 1869 on the southeast corner of Lyndale and 26th Avenues North following an outbreak of the dreadful disease smallpox. The individuals contracting this illness were removed from society to this small hospital just north of the city limits “in the country” next to a place known as “Negro House and Land” or “Negro Hill.” A researcher at the Special Collections department of the downtown Hennepin County Library has provided me with eight accounts regarding this location. Shockingly, all from 1914 through 1930 refer to the location of the “Pest Hospital” as next to “nigger hill.” The hospital was destroyed and the land where it was located became part of Farview Park in 1883. In 2020, in the same location, is a purple sculpture with seating for onlookers.
And what of the purple sculpture resting on that same soil of Lyndale and 26th now? Where did it come from? What does it represent? Ironically or paradoxically, the 15-foot-high Purple Raindrop installed in 2018 was created by Esther Osayande, a Black artist, to honor the late Prince Rogers Nelson, our Northside African American son known to the world for his brilliancy.
I tell you this story of layering history in one corner of the world, in one corner of our community, four blocks from my house, to remind ourselves that there are roots of racism that lie in the very soil that we walk and play on today.
So, as educators, as we are inserting hidden history of our Northside community into the Human Geography courses at Henry High; we strive to share the truths that have been covered up or sometimes transformed. We are peeling away the layers of the history of humans in specific places with an appreciation for what has changed for the betterment of our citizens as we strive to move forward, sharing stories of understanding, community, hope and caring.