28 episodes

A journal exploring the history and culture of Minnesota communities. Inform these stories: mprnews.org/nsj

North Star Journey MPR News

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A journal exploring the history and culture of Minnesota communities. Inform these stories: mprnews.org/nsj

    Rochester confronts its segregated housing history, Mayo founders' role

    Rochester confronts its segregated housing history, Mayo founders' role

    Pastor Don Barlow sits in the front pew of his Baptist church on Rochester’s southeast side, holding a piece of paper, faded by decades in Olmsted County’s archives but still clear in its intent.

    “This property shall never be occupied by a Negro,” Barlow reads from the deed for the plat of land where his predominantly Black church now stands.

    It’s a moment of poetic justice for Barlow, who recently learned that about a century ago he and his congregants would have been legally blocked from worshiping there.

    “The shock, the alarm comes from the clearness of the statement found within the legal documents,” he said. “It’s not so much the usage of the word Negro, because it was the language of the day, but more so the fact that in a legal document, it was being stated and accepted as the norm.”

    For years, such covenants were a tool used across the nation and in Minnesota to keep nonwhite people out of white neighborhoods. They’re illegal now, but their impact remains, cascading into thousands of individual decisions about schools, homes and jobs that have collectively kept cities shackled to the past.

    Reckoning with that past is hard for any city, but Rochester’s comes with an unusual twist: New research into housing covenants makes it clear how the founders of Mayo Clinic — a giant in Minnesota and Rochester, viewed globally as a force for good — played a role perpetuating practices that favored all-white neighborhoods.

    Racial covenants in Rochester
    Roughly 850 racial covenants have been found so far. Hear from Rochester residents who own homes with racial covenants. 

    Note: Numbers represent racial covenants found so far. This is an ongoing project and not all properties have been checked. The percentage indicates for each census tract the share of properties with racial covenants out of the properties that were both platted before 1953 and have been checked.  This map focuses on central Rochester and does not include all racial covenants found so far in Olmsted County. Source: NAACP Racial Covenant Mapping Project / Phil Wheeler. Map: Elisabeth Gawthrop/APM Research Lab.

    With the city expanding rapidly now around Mayo Clinic, city leaders hope Rochester can be a magnet for a diverse workforce. Part of that journey, though, means coming to terms with a troubling part of the city’s history — decades of intentional housing segregation. A recent push to map the city’s racial housing covenants shows how deep those roots lie and the challenges moving forward.

    ‘Racists buying real estate’

    Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

    Phil Wheeler refers to a map of homes in Rochester's historic "Pill Hill" neighborhood on April 13, where restrictive neighborhood covenants were once enforced.

    Armed with a stack of historical maps and documents, Phil Wheeler walks the streets of Pill Hill, a historic neighborhood just southwest of Mayo Clinic’s downtown campus that was home to some of the hospital’s first professionals.

    Today, homes in this neighborhood can cost millions. In the early 1900s when Pill Hill was being developed, prices were high for the time, too, said Wheeler, an urban planner who once worked in planning departments for the city and county.

    Now, as a member of the local chapter of the NAACP, he’s leading a volunteer effort to map intentional segregation in Rochester. The project was born from a 2021 decision by the Rochester City Council to be the first greater Minnesota city to join Just Deeds, a project that helps homeowners and cities find racial covenants and then legally disavow them.

    Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

    Phil Wheeler points out homes in the historic "Pill Hill" neighborhood where restrictive neighborhood covenants were once enforced.

    Price minimums were required by the deeds for the land houses were built on — one way of making sure

    • 8 min
    Decades after taking it, feds set to return Minnesota land to Leech Lake band

    Decades after taking it, feds set to return Minnesota land to Leech Lake band

    For decades, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe pressed the federal government to give back tracts of northern Minnesota land it wrongfully took from the tribe in the 1940s and 1950s. Now, Washington is close to returning nearly 12,000 acres.

    The roots of the dispute reach back to 1948, when the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs incorrectly interpreted an Interior Department order to mean it had the power to sell tribal land allotments without the consent of a majority of the rightful landowners.

    The land transfers were acts of outright theft, said LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III, representative for Leech Lake’s District 3, which includes Cass Lake. “They mailed out letters to people. If they didn't get a response, they took them as ‘Yes.’ They took them as approval,” he said.

    Monika Lawrence for MPR News

    Old pines stand tall in an eastern section of the Pike Bay Experimental Forest.

    Fairbanks said he asked his staff to begin looking into the issue in 2012 after hearing from community members for many years. Then-President Donald Trump signed legislation in December 2020 allowing for the return of the land, which currently sits within the Chippewa National Forest in Cass County.

    More than 18,000 acres of land were taken before the Interior Department ended the sales in 1959. The band has submitted its survey detailing each of the parcels to be returned; 11,760 acres are expected to be restored to the community in coming months.

    Fairbanks said the Leech Lake band’s relationship with the Cass County leaders played an important role in getting the Leech Lake Reservation Restoration Act signed into law.

    Monika Lawrence for MPR News

    LeRoy Fairbanks hopes that the positive experiences of negotiating with Cass County can serve as a model for future talks with other counties.

    Historically, tribal communities and county governments in Minnesota have had difficult relationships, so a 2014 agreement was a breakthrough for Leech Lake and Cass County. It called for the two governments to work together on projects from public works to law enforcement. As the land transfer neared approval, Cass County stayed effectively neutral.

    Fairbanks called it “a humongous turning point for our relationship with the county.”

    County commissioners respect the sovereignty of the band and agreed that they should “not get in the middle of negotiations between two sovereign nations,” said Josh Stevenson, the Cass County administrator.

    Full series North Star Journey

    Hoping to ease tribal homelessness Leech Lake Band takes back its land

    Tim Sumner, a commissioner in nearby Beltrami County, sees the cooperation between Cass County and the Leech Lake band as an important step forward for county-tribal relations across Minnesota.

    “It's great to have these partnerships,” he said. “I think, you know, as time goes on, we can only anticipate that the relationships will be no stronger. It all just started with the memorandum of understanding between Leech Lake and Cass County.”

    The tribe shares more than 2,000 miles of boundary with the Chippewa National Forest, and nearly 40 percent of the forest lies within Leech Lake tribal lands. Faron Jackson Sr., the Leech Lake tribal chair, made the land’s importance clear in 2018 testimony to a U.S. Senate committee.

    Monika Lawrence for MPR News

    Traditional birch bark harvesting is seen in May on a parcel of the Chippewa National Forest that is part of the federal land being returned to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

    “A robust land base is the foundation of tribal sovereignty, and self determination lands from [within] the geographic reach of our jurisdiction supports our tribal population,” he said. “It is the basis of our economy, and provides an irreplaceable forum for our cultural vitality, practices.”

    • 4 min
    ‘All mothers care for their daughters': A traditional Korean dish honors motherhood through children’s birthdays

    ‘All mothers care for their daughters': A traditional Korean dish honors motherhood through children’s birthdays

    Birthdays are about celebrating the arrival of a child, but in Korean tradition, one special dish made every birthday honors motherhood and the relationships between parents and their children. 

    During my husband’s birthday weekend, his favorite foods are on the menu: baked mac n’ cheese and yellow cake with fudge frosting. Aaron chooses these every year, but I always make a small pot of miyeok guk — seaweed soup. 

    Hannah Yang | MPR News

    Hannah Yang lifts a handful of seaweed.

    I wash and soak the dehydrated seaweed in cold water. As a kid, I always wondered how the green slimy things you find in the ocean transformed into these crinkly strands. Now, whenever I make it, the smells and the taste remind me of my Umma, my mom, making Korean food for me. 

    It’s simple: mostly seaweed, with stew beef sauteed in sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic. There’s a secret ingredient my Umma uses, and I think she’d get mad if I revealed what it was, but it’s key to add it to give the soup that extra depth of flavor. 

    Every birthday, she’d cook it for my birthday without fail. For my oppa, my older brother, and my appa, my dad, too. Umma tells me after each birthday, she would eat miyeok guk during postpartum recovery, my halmoni, my grandmother, made for her. 

    There are health benefits to eating seaweed, which is rich in iron and vitamins. It’s the epitome of home cooking, as my Umma calls it. 

    Hannah Yang | MPR News

    Hannah Yang celebrating her first birthday in Strongsville, Ohio in January 1994. The ceremony is known as dol or doljanchi, which is a Korean tradition that celebrates the first birthday of a baby. This ceremony blesses the child with a prosperous future and has taken on great significance in Korea.
    Doljabi is a tradition where the baby is placed in front of various items or objects. Then, the baby is encouraged to grab one or two items from the set of objects where each choice symbolizes a certain future of the baby with respect to his or her career or a lifestyle. A pencil means they will be a scholar; rice means never going hungry and string can indicate they will live a long life. Yang grabbed a pencil, which might tie to her career as a journalist.

    “In Korea, starting from when you’re in the hospital, from when the baby is born you eat miyeok guk,” she said. “So there was a point that for one month, I just ate seaweed soup.”

    Postpartum care is known as sanhujori. It’s traditionally provided by the new mother’s family members and in-law families. They cook healthy, warm foods and help care for the baby while the mother recovers.

    It’s also important to keep the body warm. For Korean mothers, getting exposed to even a cold breeze is considered a taboo. Umma said it’s because if a new mother fails to keep her body warm, it’s believed she may become susceptible to a life-long illness. 

    When Umma gave birth at the hospital in the United States, she found a very different approach to postpartum recovery. 

    “What surprised me was the different culture,” she said. “When I gave birth in an American hospital, I wanted to eat miyeok guk. I said I could eat something warm because I was cold. But at the hospital, they gave me ice cream.”

    By eating miyeok guk on our birthday, we’re reminded to thank our mothers by eating the same food they did postpartum. Umma said that my halmoni took care of her after each birth, staying for almost a month until she recovered. 

    Hannah Yang | MPR News

    Hyun Ji Kim and her daughter, Hannah Yang.

    “All mothers care for their daughters,” Umma said. “If they take off their socks, they put them back on. Even when they don’t want to, they still put it back on for them. They dress them in warm clothes, otherwise later it’ll get strenuous.”

    And they make birthday soup. 

    My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980’s. They w

    • 4 min
    Hmong snack connects present with the past

    Hmong snack connects present with the past

    Most Minnesotans know the state is home to the largest urban concentration of Hmong immigrants in the country. 

    I grew up on the East Side of St. Paul thinking of Southeast Asian cooking as my birthright. Pho, rice noodle salads and banh mi are more Minnesotan to me than any lutefisk or lefse. Still, I didn’t know much about Hmong food, even though we have about three times as many Hmong neighbors as we do Vietnamese.

    Until I met my friend Chef Yia Vang, who has been our state’s emissary for understanding Hmong cuisine, I didn’t really know much about the cooking. He runs a wildly successful restaurant, Minneapolis’ Union Hmong Kitchen, with another in the works.

    I asked Yia what he thought of as an iconic home cooking dish from the culture, and whether his mom would teach me how to make it. He asked her and she said yes.

    Mecca Bos | MPR News

    Pang Vang ladles batter into a frying pan as she prepares
    Fawm Kauv, a Hmong steamed rice roll filled with a ground pork mixture.

    “Hmong cooking is not naturally a restaurant cuisine,” Yia began, standing in his mom’s impeccable sprawling suburban mansion kitchen. “Because it's not made to be cooked in a restaurant. You know, there's all these processes, all these parts to it, that if you think about how this food came to be, it was pulled from different moments of suffering.” 

    Pang remembers living through a constant state of war as a girl.  Born into a village in Laos she says didn’t really have a name, her family was forced to move from place to place just to survive. Many people were killed, she says, and that’s just the way it was. 

    Through listening to stories of his parents’ ordeal and hardships, Yia has built not just a restaurant but a storytelling space that’s an homage to them. Though he towers over her by more than a foot, Pang is boss and chef in this home kitchen. Her influence on her son is as palpable as the food we’re about to enjoy.

    “The food that we do at the restaurant, yes, it's Hmong food,” Yia explains, “and it's a reflection of mom and dad's table, but [at] mom and dad's table, that's where you're gonna get what you’re longing for. We want to give people a taste — so that they want to actually explore more.”

    Mecca Bos | MPR News

    Fawm Kauv, a Hmong steamed rice roll filled with a ground pork mixture.

    That further exploration was why I wanted to get into Pang’s kitchen. I knew that is where Yia’s food story began — the one that compelled him to start his businesses Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai, his upcoming restaurant named after the refugee camp where he was born. 

    And it began with dishes like the one we would be making, a steamed rice roll called Fawm Kauv, which is pronounced ‘pho-kau.’ This roll with the texture of pho noodles stuffed with seasoned ground pork was a childhood favorite of Yia’s, but I wanted to know what it meant to his mom, too. 

    As it turns out, she loved it as a child too but her experience with it was a little bit different. 

    Yia translates for Pang as she masterfully pours batter into three lightly oiled pans. She looks almost bored as she stands by the stove, but Yia says she is watching everything closely, simultaneously listening and watching for signs the wraps are done. She flips the finished ones onto an old carefully cleaned rice bag that she reserves solely for the purpose thanks to its non-stick properties. Then she fills and rolls while fielding difficult questions and painful memories.

    “In Laos when they were making this, it literally was just like maybe scallions or onions inside. There was no meat — meat was probably about two or three times a year — that's all you got. But growing up this was their favorite,’ Yia translated. 

    Mecca Bos | MPR News

    Fawm Kauv, a Hmong steamed rice roll filled with a ground pork mixture which is served with dipping sauc

    • 4 min
    Me and Mr. Bridgeman: How a teacher transformed a student's life

    Me and Mr. Bridgeman: How a teacher transformed a student's life

    On even the most ordinary days, teachers can impact the lives of their students in extraordinary ways. I learned that on one morning in 1979, as a third grader and one of the few Black kids at Weaver Elementary School in Maplewood.

    That day, I was swarmed at the coat rack by a cluster of hyped-up, freckled and rosy-faced classmates who greeted me by yelling, “Your dad is here! Your dad’s gonna be our teacher today! Is that your dad?”

    The year was already a disaster. A small few of my tiny classmates were calling me the n-word more than they called me by my actual name, prompting me to respond with my fists. In fact, my teacher had sent me to the principal’s office several times and called my parents to complain about my behavior — including one time for punching kids who had a fascination with touching my short afro and would follow up by saying, “Ewww, you have grease in your hair!”

    Sometimes, my teacher’s in-class punishment for some errant students was placing our desks in the corner facing the wall, surrounded by a foldable wooden partition that felt like a little pop-up jail for budding juvenile delinquents. Much worse, was the belt whipping that followed at home. Like many parents from the ‘70s and ‘80s, my folks considered the belt to be the highest expression of love and protection that a Black parent could show. They believed it was a way to scare me — as a third grader and a Black male — into learning how to self-govern my behavior to keep myself away from street violence, the drug trade or gangs, or deadly encounters with the police.

    My mother worried that bad reports from teachers was the beginning of what we now call the “school to prison pipeline.” Considering the statistical reality that Black students across America are more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled or arrested for the same kind of conduct, I now know that, in fearing that possibility, she wasn’t entirely wrong. 

    When my classmates greeted me, I was immediately overcome with worry, thinking that my father came to the school to do what my mother often promised she’d do if I didn’t straighten up: Give me an ol’ fashioned, American Southern Baptist belt whipping in front of all of my white classmates.

    I bravely took off my red snowmobile suit and silver moon boots and walked into the room. And then, there he was, my so-called “dad,” looking down at all our innocent faces. Thankfully, he carried a welcoming grin and a kindly introduction. “Hello boys and girls, my name is Mr. Bridgeman. Mrs. Blumer is out, and I will be substituting for her today.”

    Indeed, he was Black, and he was rather tall compared to all of us, but he wasn’t my dad. In fact, he looked nothing like Lee Hawkins Sr. But his paternal spirit immediately filled me with a sense of wonder and a brand-new feeling of security. Without him saying a word, I felt a higher standard of expectation and sensed a loving, but no-nonsense accountability that my father inspired at home.

    Maybe Mr. Bridgeman would understand that this Black boy’s errant behavior had more to do with boredom and with there being a loss of challenge than there was with any kind of instinctual criminal disposition. Maybe — just maybe — if I were to punch a kid for touching my hair, this guy would understand why and talk to the kid and tell him to stop, instead of just sending me to the principal’s office and just saying I hit somebody.

    On some of the days when Mrs. Blumer called home, Dad explained things from his point-of-view to try to reason with me. “I don’t care what name they call you, boy. If you keep fighting these white kids, you’re always gonna be the one to get in trouble,” he said. “Don’t you know that when these white teachers see those kids, they’re seeing the faces of their own kids, and their nieces and nephews? When they see you, they don’t see anything but a trouble-making Black boy. That’s all they see.

    • 7 min
    North Star Journey elevates stories about Minnesota’s diverse communities

    North Star Journey elevates stories about Minnesota’s diverse communities

    MPR News has a new reporting project called North Star Journey, focusing on the history and culture of Minnesota’s diverse communities. 

    Since the project launched in March, MPR News reporters have produced a wide range of stories. Some look back at the history of communities, including Black migration to Fargo-Moorhead after the Civil War and the multi-ethnic mosaic of West Side Flats in St. Paul.

    Other stories explore how communities today are finding solutions to problems that disproportionately impact communities of color, including stories about boosting Somali homeownership in St. Cloud, Worthington’s fast-growing communities of color and schools in Duluth trying to bridge the city’s long east-west divide.  

    MPR News host Angela Davis talks with two editors about what led to the series, highlights from the reporting and what’s next.  


    Sarah Glover is managing editor of MPR News. 

    Brandt Williams is editor of the Race, Class & Communities team at MPR News.  

    North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

    Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS.

    • 36 min

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