A Hastings nonprofit dedicated to recognizing the city's early African American population is working toward installing a new piece of art to commemorate a Black church that stood for 15 years only to be burned down by an arsonist in 1907.

Since it began in 2018, Building Remembrance for Reconciliation has hosted events educating residents and others about the city's early Black residents, who arrived about 1850.

"We believe that telling the truth about the past affects the future and the present. We won't be able to properly deal with the issues of today unless we know where we're coming from," said Andy Bindman, vice chair of the group's board .

Group members have even tracked down several descendants of the earliest Black families that once lived in Hastings — and those descendants have helped form the nonprofit.

The 14-member group will hold a charette — a one-day event during which a team of designers or other stakeholders brainstorm and collaborate to solve a problem — on Sept. 23 involving five teams of artists from around the Twin Cities. The artists will be paid to envision what form the artwork could take.

"I just want to show that African Americans are resilient and have survived everything that's been thrown at them and can not only survive but thrive," said James Anderson Curry , a filmmaker and instructor at Augsburg University who is a descendant of Phoebe Ella and James Dabney Curry, early Black residents of Hastings.

The city is supporting the effort. The City Council in mid-August approved a permanent spot for the artwork, a 37-by-20-foot space at Levee Park, and has awarded a $10,000 Community Investment Fund grant to the group to help determine what the piece should be.

"It could be a garden, it could be a sculpture, it could be a mural," said Bindman.

Arson but no investigation

In 1892, the city's Black residents started their own church, called Brown's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Hastings. The Currys, along with another family, the Wallaces, held leadership roles there.

In 1907, just after the church's 15th anniversary, someone cut the screen window, poured kerosene on the floor and pews and set it on fire.

Local historian and Building Remembrance for Reconciliation member Heidi Langenfeld said two newspapers reported the fire as arson. The community didn't have the money to rebuild and the crime wasn't investigated.

Within two years, the uninsured building was sold for $300, she said.

Though the Black community numbered about 40 by 1870, the population started to dwindle in the decades after the arson, Langenfeld said. After young people graduated from high school, Hastings offered few job opportunities — and some Black residents felt they weren't wanted there, she said.

Some families moved to south Minneapolis and joined St. Peter's African Methodist Episcopal Church, she said.

Curry said his family didn't know about a church that burned down before he started doing research over the past few years. He began learning everything he could about Hastings' Black community from old newspapers and matching it up with family stories.

Through a newspaper article, he learned the story of James and Ella Curry, two of his ancestors who were christened at a Hastings church in the 1880s. The youngest child of a local white judge yelled a racial epithet at the children as they were walking down the aisle to be baptized.

How best to remember

Curry said he knows what he'd like to see for the art project. He'd like the piece "to own that fire" while celebrating the strength of Black families in Hastings.

He envisions "something like a phoenix rising from the ashes," he said, perhaps in the form of a wall or engraved story coming up from the earth. There might be a pit where people could throw kindling to create a real fire or water pouring down onto black stone, depending on the season.

He thinks the artwork will be a big step for Hastings. It also represents a smaller step forward that many communities could take, he said.

"I think this, when it's accomplished, speaks to the efforts of small steps, grass roots, incremental change and dialogue," Curry said.

According to a recent Census estimate, Hastings is composed of 93.6% white residents and about 1% Black residents.

City Administrator Dan Wietecha said that while the population of Black, Indigenous and people of color in Hastings is in the single digits now, the city is becoming more diverse.

He hopes the city will give the project additional funding, he said, and believes continued dialogue about the city's past is valuable.

"If we strive to be a welcoming community, we need to recognize where we've fallen short," he said.