Written by Sabrina Nur & Carrie Pomeroy
15 min read
Russel Balenger, is a son, a father, a grandfather, an uncle and a guardian angel to many. A fearless and respected community voice, a son of Rondo, and an elder in Saint Paul. He recently made news when he was appointed to fill a seat in St. Paul Ward 1. Many people in St. Paul and beyond already knew Russel through his community leadership long before he was chosen to represent St. Paul’s Ward 1.
We sat down with Russel recently to talk about his lifetime of work on racial justice and community peacemaking and the ways his efforts have intersected with the work of InEquality and Oyate Hotanin. His efforts have included hosting peace circles for men incarcerated in Stillwater Correctional Facility and connecting formerly incarcerated people with jobs, housing, educational opportunities, and community support. In addition, Russel has been a leader in efforts to reduce youth incarceration in Ramsey County and oppose racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. With his wife Sarah, he founded the award-winning Circle of Peace Movement, a weekly circle aimed at preventing community violence and fostering racial healing.
Throughout his life, Russel has practiced a leadership style that is kind, determined, and deeply rooted in the values of service and hospitality that he learned from his family growing up in Rondo. Russel had so many wonderful stories to share about the ways his life has intersected with key moments in St. Paul’s history, we decided it made sense to present our conversation in three parts. We hope you enjoy learning more about this amazing St. Paul leader and member of the InEquality and Oyate Hotanin organizing family!
Part 1: Growing Up in Rondo
Russel in the 1968 Central High School yearbook
Born in 1950, Russel started his life in a sixteen-room house on two lots at 812 St. Anthony, located on the north side of the Rondo block. Russel says of the house, “It was beautiful!”
Russel’s father, also named Russel, worked for the railroad. “He was very frugal and was very good with his money,” Russel said. His father’s hard work and frugality gave the family a real sense of prosperity and security.
“My mother always carried herself and dressed like she was a queen,” Russel recalled. “We always used to look at it like, ‘Where is she getting all this?’’ She was firm about education and exhibiting manners.
In Russel’s early childhood, Rondo was the thriving, vibrant heart of St. Paul’s Black community, with over 80 percent of Black St. Paul residents calling Rondo home. Officials decided in the 1950s to route Interstate 94 through Rondo, even though there was an alternative route along Pierce Butler Route that would have impacted far fewer people. The highway construction had a devastating impact that still reverberates today. One in eight Black homeowners in St. Paul lost a home because of the highway construction, and many businesses were lost, too.
When the children of Rondo speak now of the neighborhood and the homes they had before the highway was built, they describe them with pride and their homes as grand. In an interview with Rondo elder Marvin Anderson aired on PBS, Anderson noted that white officials had designated Rondo as a slum in 1935. By doing this, as a 2022 Minnesota Reformer article explains, officials were able to assess homes in Rondo for far less than they were worth, pressuring families into taking less for their homes easing the way for the highway to come roaring through.
Russel’s family was one of the many families whose lives were upended by officials’ decision to tear a hole through the heart of the neighborhood. “There was a house fire” at 812 St. Anthony, Russel recalled. “But we weren’t allowed to do the repairs because [officials] were taking [the house] any way to make way for the interstate.”
Russel is the youngest of six siblings. His family was split up because they didn’t have a place to go that was big enough for all of them. They didn’t have the sort of insurance that would allow them to go to a hotel after a fire. In fact, what they did get from insurance for the house fire was $4000. Their family got another home, 817-819 Dayton, a duplex four half blocks up the street towards Selby.
Russel said, “That home cost closer to $20,000. So the insurance payout was merely a down payment on this home that was not as large.”
His brothers went on to find their own apartment. His eldest sister Beverly, who had a son who was four months younger than Russel, found an apartment, and then his sister Lillian got a job and found a place. Russel, his sister Sandra, and his nephew Steven, who was Beverly’s son, were eventually the only family members who remained with Russel’s parents.
Russel recalled, “At that time, more and more people were being moved out of Rondo and off of St. Anthony. And they were beginning to dig the hole for the freeway. There were no housing laws. So you couldn’t just move anywhere. You could only move where you were allowed. So most people had to move right around the hole that was the freeway.”
When Russel moved to Dayton Avenue, the street was predominantly white. He remembered that the adults told the black and white children of the neighborhood that they could not play together. However, Russel recalled that it did not stop their youthful spirits.
“We’d go one way and they’d go around the other, and there was this open field and we would play ball or kickball. When it came time to go home, we’d go around the same way we came and go home. But then, one day we were having such a good time and forgot and just walked home together.”
Russel described adults running out of their homes and shouting “What are you doing?!” Very quickly, the white families moved out.
“When I say the white families,” Russel explained, “it was a lot of Jewish people. There was a man and his family renting the upstairs of this duplex we bought. I would go out every day and talk to him while he burned his trash. In those days, you burnt your trash outside. You didn’t have a trash hauler. But one day, Mr. Koza came down and said, ‘You seem to be very fine people but we just can’t rent from n—-s.’ My brothers got upset. My mother put her hands on the table which meant ‘Be still.’ It wasn’t meant to be derogatory. It was just the only language that he had. My mother said, ‘Well, you’ve been very good tenants. And if you should need a reference you just let us know.’” Russel’s mother found another tenant.
Russel and his siblings were raised to be courteous and respectable young people, and their parents held a high standard. Russel said, “You hear people say that you always had to have ‘The Talk’ about how to interact with police as a black person. We didn’t have ‘The Talk.’ You use your manners and you didn’t want to bring [your mother] any shame. So you were careful about what you did.”
Russel’s family weathered another devastating challenge not long after having to move from their home on St. Anthony to Dayton Avenue. When Russel was 13, his father had the first of a series of strokes. Within a few years, Russel’s father had ended up in a nursing home. Russel said, “In those days, they weren’t doing rehabilitation. You just were there until either you got up or you died…So, my mother would have to take care of us. In those days it was unheard of to have a job downtown if you were a Black woman.”
His mother worked many jobs to support the family, including working at a local department store selling women’s fashions. She also was heavily involved in civic leadership, including founding the North Central Voters League with S. Edward Hall, a prominent Black barber and civil rights activist who ran a barber shop in St. Paul from the early 1900s until his death in 1975.
“There’s a statue of him in the park by the [Cathedral Hill] YWCA,” Russel explained. “He was very instrumental in starting the Urban League here. His barbershop had 12 chairs, but it was all for white men.”
Hall catered to the powerful with a purpose. “He would hear their plans for the city and he would use the information to help uplift the black community. He’s still not getting nearly the acclaim he deserves,” Russel added.
Through the North Central Voters League, Lillian Balenger helped organize voters in the community and who they would vote for. Politicians took note and began to approach her because they wanted those votes. Hubert Humphrey, who would go on to be vice president and run for president, and Walter Mondale who did the same, would come by the house and they’d have coffee.
Lillian Balenger eventually leveraged the community connections she’d made through her political organizing to found a successful agency that delivered meals to elders.
As Russel remembered it, his mother employed six or seven administrators at her agency, all women of different ethnicities, and one secretary named Bob. Russel proudly recalled visiting his mother in her office suite at the Commodore Hotel on Western Avenue. She introduced Russel to her staff and asked Bob, “Would you get us a cup of coffee?”
Russel’s mother had to fight every step of the way for that kind of power. She had come from Kansas, which experienced violent divides over slavery leading up to the Civil War. Her great-grandfather was an Irish man named John Park, a slaveholder. Russel said, “When he was 39 years old, he had sex with my mother’s great-grandmother who was thirteen. She had my great-grandfather Asbury Parks. There was an S added.”
Russel explained, “There was Park and then these others would be ‘Park’s.’ They belonged to him. It appears though, that he gave Asbury some land that he ended up with once he was free. Then he had six children. My grandfather Andrew Jackson Parks was one of them.”
Due to Russel’s father working for the railroad, when Russel was young, the family qualified for decreased fares and visited Kansas a few times.
Russel said, “My mother, who was a real go-get-it woman, seemed to be very apprehensive in Kansas. You could see that concern on her face.”
On his mother’s side of the family, there were fifteen family members living in the home plus six children who were orphaned: 21 of them in total.
Russel recounted, “They didn’t think they were poor, but they didn’t have enough dishes. Two ate off one plate. They would tell the stories during Thanksgiving time about how somebody would have the gravy dammed up on their mashed potatoes on their side of the plate, and the other couldn’t get any gravy, and my grandmother would say, ‘Undam them potatoes and let the gravy flow.’”
Russel told us how most of his mother’s family worked for a white family, with several of the women employed as housekeepers. Russel’s mother Lillian and her younger brother Gordon stayed home. As Russel explained, his mother was never afraid to speak her mind—in fact, the white family that employed most of Lillian’s family called Lillian “Sassy.” In early twentieth-century Kansas, Lillian’s strong opinions and confidence put her as a Black girl at risk, and her family feared Lillian’s plainspokenness might get them all into trouble. They decided it was safer to keep her at home to take care of the house and her brother.
Russel’s Uncle Gordon went on to become the Gordon Parks, a world-famous photographer and filmmaker, known as the writer-director of the 1969 semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree. It was the first film by a major American studio to be directed by a Black person, and it focused on the racial discrimination and violence experienced by a Black boy growing up in Kansas. In the film, a character based on Russel’s mother was called “Prissy.” Russel said a lot of his uncle’s success was due to following the good advice his mother had given him. She also strongly supported her brother’s career as an artist.
Lillian’s determination and strength, forged by her youth in Kansas, made her an iconic leader in St. Paul. Russel told us of an organization she started and led, The Continental. Primarily Black women, it was a philanthropic organization. Lillian took it nationally and internationally! They threw magnificent balls, cotillions, and teas.
One of the many balls Russel’s mother helped organize. You can see her near the back row on the right, wearing a beautiful pearl necklace. Photo courtesy of Russel Balenger
Russel recalled of these grand events, “I would be put in a tux and pulling down the white carpet for them to march on. Then there would be the waltz and evening prayers. In those days, Black people did not have clubs or places to go. So they had to create their own social outlets. There was the Sterling Club which [prominent Black architect Clarence] Wigington was part of.”
Russel reflected on how colorism was a strange phenomenon for him as a child because of his mother. She always had plan after plan, as he put it, and her political organizing meant that there were often many white people meeting in Russel’s home, so he was used to diverse people working together without prejudice against each other based on the color of their skin.
He said, “It always seemed strange to me that everybody had this other thing going on.”
Russel was an obedient, dutiful son in many ways—except when it came to staying put when his mother told him to. When Russel was very young and at home for the summer, and his mother left for work, she would say to him, “Don’t leave the yard!” Starting when he was eight years old, he would constantly leave the yard and go down the street. His mother would come home and somebody would tell her what he had been up to. Then she’d say, “Don’t leave the block!” Hungry for adventure and discovery, Russel would go across the street and let his curiosity lead the way. So then his mother would say, “Whatever you do, don’t go up on Selby!”
But being his stubborn self, he just had to go see what was happening on Selby.
“I was eight years old the first time the police stopped me,” Russel remembered. “Had me put my hands up against the building. They went through my pockets. I was so small and skinny that they could only get two fingers in. I will never forget it. I couldn’t go back home and tell my mother because she had told me not to go up there.”
Russel didn’t let the run-in with the police stop him, though.
“I just began to go a little further and a little further,” he said. “Because I wanted to see and I was adventurous.”
By the time he was nine or ten, he’d made it all the way to the Mississippi River. Around age twelve, he hitched a ride all the way to Winona, four hours from home.
As darkness was falling, a white family drove up and asked him what he was doing there. One of the adults called Russel’s mother, who was quite taken aback when he explained where he was.
Some parents might have clamped down harder on their children. But Russel’s mother wisely saw that her son needed even more chances to explore. The next summer, she sent him to Camp Widjiwagan, a YMCA camp on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It was a place where Russel could find exactly the kinds of adventures his restless spirit craved.
“You had to try to keep the bears from getting your food!” Russel remembered. “You had to work with a map and a compass to navigate through the wilderness and meet up at a rendezvous point across the border in Canada.”
Russel loved the whole experience and went back to camp for the next three summers, discovering a lifelong love of nature, travel, and wild places. At camp, he was the only Black camper surrounded by much more affluent white teens, and from them, he heard about opportunities he hadn’t even known existed. One of those opportunities was a two-month trip to the USSR, a rare, historic adventure during the height of the Cold War. Russel applied for the program and was one of only sixteen Minnesota teenagers to be accepted. It was the first of many overseas adventures that have profoundly enriched Russel’s life and work.
Russel later learned that a Minnesota judge had paid for his tuition at Camp Widjiwagan. When Russel met the judge as an adult, he introduced himself and said, “I just want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me to go to Camp Widjiwagan. It changed my life.” Russel said the judge told him, “You don’t owe me any thanks.” It turned out that Russel’s mother had played a key role in helping the judge gain his position and the judge was simply repaying his debt to her.
Russel recalled that when it came to community and political organizing work, it was hard for his mother to know when to quit.
“She would work all day and then be on the phone with planning these other things,” Russel recalled. “And she’d fall asleep, and I’d have to take the phone out of her hand…and say it’s time for you to go to bed.”
Russel remembered that his mother always reminded him to leave the back door unlocked overnight, in case someone needed to come in. That reminder was rooted in the horrors of the Jim Crow period, Russel recalled.
“If [a Black man] didn’t have a job and you were stopped, you could be considered a vagrant,” Russel explained. “They could say that you looked at a white woman and call it ‘reckless eyeballing.’ And these were all things that you could be locked up for and made to work your time off.”
The Balengers’ open-door policy extended to all of the family’s Rondo neighbors, not just people facing danger.
“In those days, people would knock and walk in,” Russel said. “And if it’s early in the morning, you might be in bed, they would come to the bedroom and say, ‘Is it too early for me to be by? Do you mind if I go sit down and have a cup of coffee?’ And that’s how it was. So if you were the kid in the family, you got up to see what they had and what they needed.”
In Part 2 of this interview, we’ll share more about how Russel carried the lessons of his youth and childhood into adulthood as he grew into the leader he is today.