History exhibit features the untold stories of Rochester's Black elders

An exhibition display.
The exhibit case for the "Community Connections: African Americans in Rochester" exhibit, which is filled with objects and stories sharing the experiences of new residents as they tried to find their community in town.
Courtesy of History Center of Olmsted County

If you take a walk through the History Center of Olmsted County before the end of 2022, you’ll find a wing full of stories and memories from Black elders in Rochester, Minn. It’s all part of an exhibit about the development of the Black community in Rochester in the 1960s and 1970s.

Pastor Andre Crockett brought the idea for “Community Connections: African Americans in Rochester” to the History Center and collaborated on its creation. He told host Cathy Wurzer that the project gave Black elders “a platform, a safe place to really share stories [that] they’d never shared before.”

IBM recruiting efforts led Black people to migrate to Rochester in the ‘60s and ‘70s — but the Black community that formed in the city wasn’t all that big. One Black elder told Crockett that in those days, you could “go weeks before you [saw] another person of color.”

Black transplants were discriminated against in key arenas like church and housing, Crockett said, and many traveled to the Twin Cities “to get a taste of [Black] culture” they couldn’t find in Rochester.

Yet the Black community in Rochester persevered and built institutions like their own newspaper, community organizations and more.

Crockett was spurred to create the exhibit because he wanted to give Rochester’s Black elders “their flowers while they’re still alive and celebrate what they’ve done.”

“We’re standing on the shoulders of those elders who paved the way,” he said.

Crockett interviewed many elders himself for the project, which he said was a “mind-blowing” experience: “I was like a little kid reliving history, and having an opportunity to see it face to face was amazing.”

“You could see the joy, you could see the sadness” in the interviews, he said.

Crockett thinks it’s important to learn not only about national leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X but also about local leaders like the elders featured in the exhibit.

As for the Black community in Rochester today, “It [has] evolved, but I haven’t seen a lot of progress,” Crockett said. “Some of the disparities of the ‘60s and ‘70s still exist.” He pointed to a dearth of Black teachers and leaders in the city.

“Community Connections: African Americans in Rochester” is on view at the History Center of Olmsted County through the end of 2022.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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