There seems to be no written evidence that Minnesota officials deliberately plotted the destruction of Black neighborhoods when they decided where to route interstate highways in the 1950s.
Yet that's just what happened when Interstates 35W and 94 were built. The freeways sliced through thriving Black neighborhoods, including the South Side and Near North in Minneapolis and the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. Their construction disrupted businesses, displaced households and left hundreds of Black families with nowhere to live in an era when most metro-area neighborhoods did not welcome residents of color.
"It's tempting to want to find some memo" in institutional records in which Minnesota highway officials explicitly discuss targeting neighborhoods for racist reasons, said Greg Donofrio, associate professor of historic preservation and public history in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. "You won't find that kind of smoking gun."
But a new, detailed exhibit at the Hennepin History Center shines a light on that somewhat forgotten episode in American history that could help raise public awareness, stir conversation and encourage public officials to engage local communities in making decisions about future projects.
Human Toll: A Public History of 35W, which opened in September and runs until Oct. 1, 2022, connects dots using pamphlets, maps, photos, newspaper clippings and other materials to show how intertwined elements of systemic racism shaped interstate routing decisions — not just in the Twin Cities, but throughout the country.
"You really have to read these things across the grain," said Donofrio, co-leader of the Human Toll project.
Altogether, freeway construction displaced about 30,000 people in the Twin Cities. They included white people, but Black neighborhoods were disproportionately affected, based on decades-old policies that were openly discriminatory. The exact percentage of displaced Black residents isn't clear because the state's highway department didn't keep track of demographics. But Minneapolis' 2040 Plan includes an estimate that the areas where 35W, 94, and Hwy. 55 were built were home to about 82% of the city's black population.
Neighborhood covenants dating to the 1920s blocked families of color outright from many residential communities. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1948, but by then the covenants had effectively segregated most neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, redlining — a federally administered practice of ranking residential neighborhoods "hazardous" for investment based on "adverse factors" that included having residents of color — diminished the value of homes in those areas.
"We're not saying that freeway designers were consulting redline maps," Donofrio said. "But they were using the same kind of racist logic."
Uprooting Black households
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the largest public works project in history at the time, authorized $26 billion to cover 90% of the cost of building 41,000 miles of highways. States were required to chip in only 10%.
"Policymakers, designers and planners used [the federal contribution] as a fundamental funding carrot, a convenient way to dismantle African American and BIPOC neighborhoods and low-income communities all over urban America," said Ernest Lloyd, an adviser on the Human Toll exhibit who is retired from a management position at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Highway planners, wanting to minimize public push-back, avoided locations used by politically powerful people or industries.
Black residents of redlined communities lacked economic and political clout to resist the freeway plans. And because redlining had devalued their property, it was cheaper for the government to acquire.
Officials knew the routes would especially harm Black families and that they'd struggle to find new homes. Social justice groups and newspapers predicted an impending crisis. Chief Highway Engineer Loyal Zimmerman wrote to Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman in 1957, "We have a racial problem to solve."
But nobody solved it. State and local officials "pointed fingers at one another claiming that the problem either wasn't their legal responsibility to solve, or they didn't have the budget to do anything about it," Donofrio said.
"It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn't matter, it's invisible," Gov. Tim Walz said in a May 2020 news conference five days after George Floyd was killed.
Similar destruction of Black neighborhoods went on across the country as the freeways rolled out; it's estimated that more than a million people were displaced. "Highway builders rarely mentioned African Americans specifically in their discussions about clearing out blight and slums," wrote urban historian Raymond Mohl in 2002. But "everyone knew what they meant."
Minneapolis held just one public meeting to discuss the 35W project, publicizing it in a fine-print legal notice buried among the classified ads. A photo of the meeting's attendees shows a room full of white faces.
"There were no people who looked like me," said Lloyd, who is Black.
Lloyd was born to North Carolina sharecroppers. For his doctorate in public administration at Hamline University, he wrote a dissertation called "How Routing an Interstate Highway Through South Minneapolis Disrupted an African American Community."
Lloyd interviewed elders in the community whose families had moved from the South to escape Jim Crow laws in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. On the Southside, they included doctors, lawyers, scientists and other middle-class residents.
"They felt like they were on the trail, if you will, to the promised land," Lloyd said. "They felt it was an attractive place to live, to raise a family. They felt a sense of peace."
But then they discovered that racial discrimination "didn't just exist in the South — it was all over the country."
No place to go
Families displaced by the interstate received money for their houses, but none to cover moving or legal expenses. And while displaced white families could move wherever they wanted, many families of color were left, effectively, with nowhere to live, competing for the few properties available and driving up their prices.
"Being colored, we are confined to relatively small areas in which we might buy freely," a couple wrote to a highway department official in a letter posted in the exhibit. "Everything adds up to one thing, and that is that we just have no place to go."
Freeways were promoted to the public as providing easy commutes for families increasingly moving to suburbs. But suburbs passed zoning laws effectively excluding many residents of color.
Twin Cities suburbs were so overwhelmingly white that a decade later, in 1967, the Minneapolis Star published a 12-part series called "Negroes in the suburbs." According to the article, census counts showed that 1,071 Black people lived in suburban parts of the seven metro counties.
Many people of color are still feeling the effects of the freeway displacement, almost 60 years later. Their neighborhoods are "exposed to significantly more air pollution," from sources including freeways, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said in a 2021 report.
And the lost opportunities for home ownership widened the racial wealth gap by depriving families of a tool for gaining equity and wealth to be passed down through generations. The racial home ownership gap in Minneapolis is the highest in the nation.
The highway department did not keep track of where families displaced by the freeway moved after that.
"Stories of people of color are almost completely absent from the archives," Donofrio said.
"We know how many went, but we don't know where they ended up," Lloyd said.
The Human Toll exhibit offers an opportunity to appreciate the benefits of "integrated, healthy and economically viable" neighborhoods, Lloyd said, adding that he hopes policymakers will keep these lessons in mind as the new federal infrastructure bill starts providing funds for transportation projects in Minnesota.
And the lessons of the past show the importance of community engagement in efforts to rewrite past wrongs, including current projects revitalizing 38th Street on the South Side and creating a land bridge over Interstate 94 in Rondo.
The exhibit "demonstrates the importance of how unresolved — indeed, unspoken — history lives in the heart and soul of families, and transcends generations," Lloyd said. "The project is one step toward correcting past wrongs by acknowledging the past and building a better future."