St. Paul Red Caps
Friday’s ceremonies kicking off the 2013 Rondo Days festival and honoring the legacy of the St. Paul Red Caps — the vanished black baggage handlers who worked for low wages at the St. Paul Union Depot but who left a successful community behind as their monument.
Well-remembered and cherished in St. Paul’s African-American community, the Red Caps had nearly been forgotten by the city at large, just as their contributions were overlooked during their life times. Now, just as the formerly moribund rail depot is being revived to serve modern rail transportation, the Red Caps finally are being given the recognition they richly deserve.
It is a fitting honor, but a bit surprising to people familiar with the story of the Red Caps and familiar with it being ignored. When Subira Kifano walked into the newly named Red Cap Room Friday, entering the newly minted space overlooking the depot’s main concourse, she was shocked to see her father, A.B. Parker. He died in 1987, but a near-life-sized cutout of him was standing by a baggage cart in a historic display. Kifano, an assistant professor of education at Hamline University, stood next to the image of her father — a third-grade dropout and father of 11 who brought his family from Mississippi to St. Paul in 1941 in the hope of making a better life for his children.
The plan worked.
“I’m ecstatic to see my father here,” she said, overcome with emotion.
Nearby, St. Paul firefighter Jerome Benner pointed to the 1952 portrait of the Red Caps standing on the steps of the Union Depot and singled out the smiling figure of his father, Cornelius “Bud” Benner: “Dad’s smiling because he knew I was on the way — I was born in December that year,” Benner joked. Benner is proud of the legacy his father managed to build despite his humble work and low wages. The monthly salary for Red Caps, it was pointed out, amounted only to $66 a month in 1945, the equivalent today of just $779, or a little over $9,000 a year.
“Can you imagine what your wife would say today if you came home with a job like that,” Marvin Roger Anderson, one of the co-founders of Rondo Days, joked Friday.
Despite that, the Red Caps held a respected position in Rondo and quickly joined the small black middle class in St. Paul.
“To serve people is an honor,” said Benner, who is 60. “As a firefighter, the greatest honor I can possibly earn is to come to the help of someone in need. That’s what my dad believed, and when I look at these men (in the photo of the Red Caps), I am so very proud he was a part of that. Christ came to serve, not to be served. To raise a family of seven on a minimum wage? We never went without anything I needed.”
The character of the Red Caps is evident in the who’s-who of African-American leaders they left behind in their home town. Friday’s ceremony, attended by about 300 people, was studded with well-known Rondo names: Carters and Finneys and Montgomeries — on and on. The old Rondo neighborhood may have forever been damaged by the ramrodding of Interstate 94 through the city’s historic black neighborhood, but it lives on in the contributions of its sons and daughters, many of whom are descended from Red Caps.