A reproduction of a 19th-century purple dress with white lace collar is positioned on a stand, as if waiting for its owner to slide it on. A copy of the Green-Book, an historic guide that helped steer travelers toward black-welcoming businesses, is gently perched under a glass case. Large panels explaining the history of African-Americans in Minnesota stand in front of floor-to-ceiling windows.
This isn’t a scene from the Minnesota History Center or even the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It is the new Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery in north Minneapolis.
Co-founded by civil rights attorney Tina Burnside and writer/education administrator Coventry Cowens, the museum addresses a long-standing gap in the Twin Cities. “Minnesota is one of the few states that does not have a museum dedicated to the African-American people in the state,” said Burnside.
For 30 years there have been repeated attempts to remedy that. Why has it taken so long? “I couldn’t tell you why,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a question for the people of Minnesota.”
The museum is entirely volunteer-run. At its soft opening Sept. 8, more than 200 people packed into the spacious fourth-floor gallery it shares with Copeland Art and Training Center in the new Thor Construction headquarters at Penn and Plymouth avenues N.
Like a mini-history center, it is similar to places like the Hennepin History Museum or the Somali Museum of Minnesota. Parking and admission are free.
The inaugural exhibition, “Unbreakable: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota,” which runs through December, focuses on early settlers in the 1800s, black female heroes, the Great Migration from the South, and war veterans who fought abroad yet faced racism at home. Exhibitions will rotate every three to four months. The next one, opening in January, will focus on the civil rights movement in Minnesota before the 1960s, with a focus on the development of the NAACP in the Twin Cities and Duluth in the early 1900s.
While Chicago was a major destination on the Great Migration north, some continued on to Minnesota. A 2017 census report put the black share of Minnesota’s population at 6.5 percent, about half as much as Illinois.
The first African-Americans in the state were not just in the Twin Cities — they ended up in Hastings, Hutchinson, even Fergus Falls.
Cowens knew about Burnside through her annual History Harvest at St. Peter’s AME Church in south Minneapolis, an event dedicated to celebrating African-American history through personal artifacts.
“I had some time on my hands and the church was just a block from my house,” said Cowens. “I walked over and watched what was going on. Tina had a moment and I just started talking to her.”
Cowens had already begun working on the museum idea, talking with community members and elected officials about the possibility.
“I was getting positives,” she said. “At that point I needed someone else I could work with to go forward — I didn’t think it should be a one-person vision or dream.”
When Cowens popped the question to Burnside — would she like to help start a museum? — Burnside said yes.
That was at the end of October 2017. Since then it has been an all-systems-go effort, with the two getting out to meet people who might want to be involved, including Hennepin County Commissioners Linda Higgins and Peter McLaughlin and Minneapolis Council Members Jeremiah Ellison and Andrea Jenkins.
The museum regards this space as a temporary home. With an annual budget of $250,000, it has been entirely funded by private donations, ranging from $25 to $200. The museum has a five-person board and is looking for more volunteers. A registered not-for-profit, it hopes to secure 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in the next two to six months. That would open the door to more fundraising efforts.
This is not the first attempt to start such a museum. The most recent was the Minnesota African-American Museum, housed in a renovated Victorian mansion just south of downtown Minneapolis. It never opened, and after a seven-year saga of funding struggles and work disputes, founder Roxanne Givens eventually lost the building in a 2015 auction.
Givens says she is not affiliated with the new museum, and that the objects from the previous one are in a climate-controlled storage unit. She did lend the museum a few objects, such as the purple dress.
Before that, former Minneapolis NAACP president Leola Seals hoped to open an African-American Historical and Civil Rights Museum, but her dream did not come to fruition.
Previous attempts at formal museums also failed, but there have been efforts that didn’t necessarily fit the traditional European model of a museum.
Mahmoud El-Kati, a former professor of history at Macalester College, recalled an African-American museum 40 years ago in south Minneapolis, which at some point moved to a church and then to the Sabathani Community Center.
“People don’t want us to have a museum,” said El-Kati. “I always come back to the natural doctrine that governs this country: There is one ideology, not 10, and that’s been here since the inception — white supremacy.”
Robin Hickman, a cultural activist, history buff and entrepreneur, noted that while there hasn’t been one centralized museum, organizations such as the Inner City Youth League in St. Paul and The Way and Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in north Minneapolis all served to reflect the black experience in Minnesota. More recently, the BROWNstone Model City in St. Paul installed a tribute to black railroad workers.
“Many of our cultural institutions were committed to engaging us into the richness of our culture and history,” Hickman said. “We didn’t rely on one entity.”
As a fifth-generation Minnesotan, she sees the new museum as a victory: “I think the journey to having it is aligned with the journey and struggle of our people — stick with it, the perseverance.”
Verlena Matey-Keke, a member of the new museum’s board, believes “there’s been a suppression of African-American history and I feel that as a result we get passed over for so many things — when there are new programs for marginalized people, we aren’t usually considered,” she said. “I think mainly because we don’t fit into any category, we’re not immigrants per se.”
With the establishment of this museum, however, a new chapter has begun.
“If you don’t have a history, you don’t exist,” said Matey-Keke. “So I think it is important that we preserve our history. I believe it’s our salvation.”