Eye On St. Paul recently read a terrific story by Star Tribune columnist Laura Yuen about Kayla Jackson, an archivist at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul. Having grown up in what was once the Rondo neighborhood — and being a self-described history nerd — I wanted to piggyback on Laura's story and ask a few more questions.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: How long have you been an archivist?
A: I have been an archivist here at Hallie Q. Brown for two years and four months. But I've been working in the world of archives from soon after I graduated from undergrad back in 2018.
Q: Where did you graduate?
A: The Rochester Institute of Technology [in Rochester, N.Y.], with a degree in museum studies and a focus on archives.
Q: What was it about archives that interested you?
A: The sense of community history. I moved around a lot as a child. And when I moved to New York, I realized unfortunately for me a lot of my elder family members passed away. And so, I didn't have easy access to pictures of my Nana or my Papa, that kind of link that connects you to the rest of the world. I desperately, desperately wanted that and I looked at the world of archives and I saw a field that was predominantly white. And I felt that it was important to have Black archivists there and for me to be there so that there were fewer people who would have the feeling that I had in not being able to look back.
Q: Why is it important for a community to have a sense of its history?
A: I would say being an archivist is like being a road builder. What I tell people is just because you can drive doesn't mean you know how to build a road. There's a lot of quiet power in the person who gets to decide where your road goes, what they connect to, what they don't connect to. Even though I'm not from here, I do live a few blocks from where I work. I get to work with people from the Rondo community and I get to see them grocery shopping or at the craft store. There's a sense of trust there, inherited trust. The community has easy access to me, and I get to create those roads with them so that they know it can be more accessible to them.
Q: What have you learned about Rondo, about the character of the Rondo neighborhood, in doing this work?
A: One word: classy. I love the pictures that families are willing to share with me. These are Black people who own land, own businesses. They looked so good, and they just had this sense of community, that "I have a shoulder to lean on, if I need someone to help me get from here to there or get this project on my house done." I think that's really beautiful.
Q: What kinds of items do you collect?
A: It depends, from archive to archive. This archive has a lot of paper documents, or what we call graphic materials. We have diaries. We have photographs. We have 35-millimeter slide transparencies. We have negatives. And we have 16-millimeter films.
Q: Going back how far?
A: Well, our photographs go back to 1860. Our 16-millimeter film goes back to 1955.
Q: Has the Hallie Q. Brown Center always had an archive?
A: This archive began in 2016-17 as a completely volunteer endeavor. One of our previous development directors reached out to Dr. Catherine Squires at the University of Minnesota. Hallie Q. Brown, which has been around since 1929, had a photography department, so they had students and community members taking pictures all the time. We had photos tucked away in the basement. And [officials said] "We can make something out of this."
And with the help of Dr. Squires, we got the funds to hire me in 2021. The unfortunate fact of archives is that so much of it is grant-funded. There's a lot of talk about how important history is, but sometimes people don't want to fund it.
Q: What has your work contributed to this community?
A: It gives them a sense of … retrospective. When I talk to people, they get a chance to see their past.
Let me share a couple anecdotes: There is a man from the Retired Men's Club. It's a senior group that meets here. Every month or so, I go show them pictures from the archive. At one point, I showed [the man] a picture of his sister. Unfortunately, she has Alzheimer's. So, a picture of her came up and he asked me, "Is there any way I could get that picture?" Of course, I spent the whole afternoon looking for every single picture I had of this woman, and I dug them out and put them in a folder and I gave it to him. And … the man starts crying. He looks at me and says, "Thank you."
That's why I do what I do, right? Because I can put things online for researchers and that's really great. But being able to do that, helping members of the community have that connection, is amazing.