I-35W museum exhibit shows devastating impact on black homeowners

The exhibit illustrates how lives were destroyed and divided during the construction of I-35W in south Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS — The first display in ‘Human Toll: A 35W Public History‘ is designed to spin your wheels. There’s a sign that asks, “How did you get here?” Next to it, tokens representing highways, city streets only, cycle paths and public transport are available for visitors to deposit in a corresponding bin.

The Hennepin History Museum The exhibition has been in place since September last year and at this point most visitors have indicated that they have taken the highway. Anticipating this, a second sign explains that decisions made 65 years ago shape our decisions today.

“We are clearly critical of 35W and the freeway system, but I drove on a freeway to get here so I’m not above this story and think we’re all to blame,” said the co-lead of the project, Dr. Greg Donofrio. “We are all responsible for making sure we do better now in the present and move forward into the future.”

Through photographs, handwritten letters, and maps, the exhibit tells the story of black residents in south Minneapolis who were forced from their homes to make way for freeway construction.

To create the project, the team turned to Dr. Ernest Lloyd, who had already spent around a decade writing a dissertation on the subject.

“We don’t know what happened to all the people,” Lloyd said. “I think of driving through a bedroom, a garage, a kitchen, an African American yard. Driving through something that was so deep and dear to these African Americans of the day who came here from the South to s ‘escape.”

Lloyd says the houses were beautiful and the families living there were educated and employed.

“They were teachers,” he said. “They were engineers. They were doctors.”

After watching crews demolish their homes, they struggled to find or build new ones.

“Marion and his wife Mary wanted to build a house in the suburb of Morningside, which is now part of Edina, and they encountered a lot of opposition there,” Donofrio said. “Get a mortgage from the bank. Get the proper permits and approvals.”

Museum visitors have the opportunity to write and display alternative solutions to what happened, such as building highways around neighborhoods, not through them.

“If they come through here, they’re going to get the knowledge to make a difference,” Lloyd said.

Human Toll runs until October 1, 2022. Admission is charged.

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