Dateline Minneapolis: Work to begin on state's black history museum

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2011 - 4:42 PM

For the Minnesota African American History Museum, groundbreaking will be more than three years in the making.

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Roxanne Givens held an antique doll in the building’s ornate foyer.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Just outside downtown Minneapolis near Interstate 94, the sign on the lawn of the Minnesota African American Museum reads:

"Opening summer 2011."

That deadline has come and gone, and founder Roxanne Givens is still working the phones and foundations for the museum's $6 million capital campaign.

Work on the project began three years ago, and, for a host of reasons both public and private, the museum's volunteer board has been pushing back the grand opening ever since.

May 2012 is the latest target date.

The construction manager, Knutson Construction, will begin soil tests on the grounds of the historic Coe Mansion this week and groundbreaking could soon follow, said David Carr, director of pre-construction services at Knutson.

With its squeaky stairs and floorboards and tattered walls and ceiling, the home at East 17th and Third Avenue South has seen better days.

Even the museum's digital home is in need of a makeover: Its website is under construction.

"We're crawling before we walk," said Harry Davis, a museum founder and the son of civic leader and businessman W. Harry Davis.

Despite the challenges that remain, Givens, Davis and other founders remain optimistic that the museum will become a destination for all Minnesotans, not just its black residents.

"We want to create a space for continual education and appreciation of Minnesota," Davis said. "A place of cultural exchange and cultural awareness."

A peek into the past

More than 270,000 people of African descent live in Minnesota, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. The first black families settled here in what was then the Wisconsin Territory, more than 200 years ago.

The museum's founders want their stories to be told. The Twin Cities metro area is one of the few in the country without a museum dedicated to the accomplishments of blacks, Givens said.

"When Roxanne brought this to us, many people had the same thought," said City Council Member Robert Lilligren, who represents the area where the museum is located. "Why don't we already have this?"

Inside, Givens points to a weathered photograph from the late 1800s framed on the wall. The O'Shields family -- mother, father, five children and a female relative -- stare back at her. They are her maternal ancestors.

Her father, Archie Givens Sr., was the state's first black millionaire.

She rattles off the names of prominent citizens of Minnesota past: civil rights activist and former NAACP president Roy Wilkins, labor activist Nellie Stone Johnson and George Bonga, the first black man born in the territory that would become the state of Minnesota, among others.

But the founders want more than a house filled with staid exhibits, a place that people visit once, then never return to, said Davis, a sixth-generation Minnesotan.

"There's a zillion stories," Givens said.

The organizers want to emphasize education. A full floor will cater to preschool children, with storytelling and interactive activities.

"They have to know there is a past," Givens said, "so there is some reason for them to spring forward."

Finding funding

Architecture firm 4RM+ULA (pronounced "Formula") will develop designs for the project's first stage, a renovation of Coe Mansion, which was built in the early 1880s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Because of the federal designation, the architects have tread carefully with plans, which include specs for an elevator on the building's south side. Developing a cultural center on adjoining property that will connect to the museum is the goal for the second phase.

Givens has raised more than $1.2 million of the $2 million she hoped to collect before next spring's scheduled opening, with the funds coming from public and private sources.

Initially, the museum may rely on traveling exhibits to fill the three floors of the 8,400-square-foot mansion, but that would be temporary.

For the institution's first exhibit of its own, the Minnesota Twins Community Foundation and Pohlad Family Foundation have pledged $25,000 each for a showcase on black baseball in Minnesota and the effect it had on life in the Upper Midwest.

"Absent Roxanne, this never would have happened," Lilligren said.

The museum's home has turned out to be quite a find, Givens said, for what started out as a mistake.

She happened upon the mansion after she took a wrong turn and ended up lost in the Stevens Square neighborhood.

The idea for a museum arose soon thereafter.

"It's been a welcome journey," Givens said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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