MINNEAPOLIS — In Minnesota, we have museums dedicated to marine art, model railroads, Prince and yes, even SPAM. But it wasn’t until September 2018 that Minnesota got an African-American history museum.
The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis is the brainchild of co-founders Coventry Royster Cowens and Tina Burnside, who is also the museum’s curator. The two first met at a local “history harvest” — an effort to catalog personal items and interview community members as a way to preserve the history of Minneapolis’ South Side.
After a full year of planning, the museum opened, greeted by 200 visitors. In just one year, the museum has featured five exhibits, including a permanent exhibit that celebrates the resilience of African Americans in Minnesota. An art exhibit called “Grace” explored the tradition of African American women wearing colorful “church hats.” Every Saturday morning, MAAHMG hosts its “Children’s Reading Circle,” an effort to promote literacy and introduce children to African American authors and characters. The museum also provides tours to classes of schoolchildren.
Cowens can often be found sitting at the museum’s front table during the day. “I observe a lot of things that go on,” she said. “When the kids first come in, at first they’re kind of all excited about being someplace else. But once they start to read the panels, you can feel the energy soften.”
Both Cowen and Burnside stress the importance of sharing stories that have not been told, either because the storytellers have passed, the stories have been erased or history books have decided not to tell them. “I think that that’s really important because a lot of times, African American history is not taught in schools. And if it is, it’s just taught with MLK and Rosa Parks and then, they make it seem like that’s the end of African American history,” Burnside said.
Starting a museum from scratch comes with challenges. To keep the museum entrance fee free, MAAHMG’s staff is completely volunteer-based. Another obstacle is the space itself: a large room with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides on the fourth floor of the Regional Acceleration Center building in Minneapolis. The room makes for a sun-filled museum experience, but poses some challenges for hanging artwork. The museum staff has engineered creative solutions: informational banners, moveable walls and dedicating the lone windowless wall for framed artwork.
Currently featured on that wall is an exhibit of amateur photographer John Glanton, who captured African-American life in the Twin Cities in the 1940s. Volunteer Carmelle Abron was flipping through a booklet of Glanton’s photos in the museum when she noticed someone who looked familiar. Abron was overcome with emotion when she realized she was staring for the first time at a portrait Glanton took of her mother, then in her 20s. Abron remembers growing up on the South Side of Minneapolis and running into some of the key players of the time, like Anthony Brutus Cassius, the first black business owner in the Twin Cities to receive an alcohol license. For her, walking through the museum is like taking a trip down memory lane.
“I can go out there and see my great-great grandfather on this panel. I can go in this book and I can see my mother. I can go to this table and see my brother, part of the Film Society. This is my history,” Abron said
Other museum-goers have experienced similar revelations. One visitor, 91 years old at the time of his visit, recognized himself at 19 years old in one of Glanton’s pictures. The “Grace” exhibit also made people excited to see who they knew, said Cowen.
“[The museum] is a place where African Americans can come see their stories, see their families stories, see their history and see themselves reflected in the stories that are being told here,” Burnside said.