Immigrant Stories

When historian Peter Rachleff ’73 and his wife, Beth Cleary, bought a house on the East Side of St. Paul, Minn., the neighborhood “had been buffeted by plant closings and deindustrialization,” Rachleff says, and “had become the site of new immigration from Southeast Asia, Central America and East Africa.” The history of the East Side seemed like a “microcosm of the American experience.”

The couple, both on the faculty at Macalaster College, began dreaming of a project that could serve, he says, “to build not only knowledge about immigrants’ and workers’ experiences, but also to build bridges which might link disparate communities.”

Peter Rachleff '73
"The history of the East Side is a “microcosm of the American experience.” Peter Rachleff '73; Major: Independent Scholar.

In 2014, after living in the neighborhood for 15 years, they leased the historic Arlington Hills library building and established the East Side Freedom Library, a nonprofit with a mission to “preserve and promote knowledge about the East Side—its history, residents and institutions.” In its first year and a half, the library has amassed well over 7,000 books, about half of which come from Rachleff ’s personal collection. It also features photographs, visual art, musical instruments and recordings.

In addition, the library is the new home of the Hmong Archives, a vast collection of paj ndau (textile artworks known as “story cloths”) and other materials. This archive was established in the late 1990s to document the history and culture of the Hmong, who began arriving in Minnesota as refugees from Southeast Asia in 1975. Rachleff calls St. Paul “the capital of Hmong America”; it and Minneapolis combined have the world’s largest urban Hmong population.

The East Side Freedom Library has attracted some 3,000 people to more than 80 events, including a Juneteenth celebration, readings by historians and novelists, walking tours, film screenings, performances and discussions.

After 15 years in the neighborhood, a couple leased a historic building in St. Paul, Minn., and created the East Side Freedom Library.

For Labor Day, artists “painted a labor history mural 48 feet long,” Rachleff says. And “Karen immigrant women from Burma have been weaving on backstrap looms every Wednesday, and they are now selling their cloth and forming an economic cooperative.” “Volunteers,” Rachleff adds, “have taken over our gardens, built us new bookshelves and, of course, donated books.” Volunteers are also processing and cataloguing those books. Jazz musician and political activist Fred Ho contributed 100 boxes of books before his death in 2014, and the widow of labor historian David Montgomery gave 15 boxes from his personal collection. The library has also received support from labor unions.

Rachleff ’s interest in community engagement dates back to his undergraduate years, when he participated in local antiwar and antiracism movements. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pittsburgh. After joining the history faculty at Macalester in 1982, he became “the department’s bridge to the local community,” he says, working with the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center and local labor activists. Labor, immigration and African American history have been his main focuses as a scholar and teacher.

Rachleff believes the new library can serve as an example for similar projects that work to preserve the histories of immigrants and working-class populations around the country. “These projects,” he says, “can become sites of empowerment for people who have been marginalized for generations.”