So far, being the “new kid” on the block has its appeal.
The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery (MAAHMG) in North Minneapolis is reveling in the “bump” that being new provides. The museum opened its doors just 5 months ago, in September 2018, and is the first African American museum in Minnesota. “There is definitely a ‘newness’ energy going,” admits Coventry Cowens, co-founder of the museum. “We’ve attracted authors and politicians. We’ve had cycling groups come (in their spandex and click-y shoes!), and school groups and home schooled children,” Coventry recounts. “We figured we’d be the new thing on the block, attracting people from varying walks of life. We’re getting senior groups, and ladies celebrating their girlfriends’ day out together. Everyone likes to meet at the museum.”
The museum certainly shines in its newness. With polished floors and expansive walls of windows, the collection resides on the fourth floor of the newly constructed Thor Companies’ Regional Acceleration Center. The corner space hosts long views of Plymouth and Penn Avenues, pointedly facing north and west at an intersection established on familiar ground that is, like the museum, building upward.
The museum’s collection is compact, showcasing Minnesota’s African Americans from 1850 to today, and gives voice to the “rich community that helped grow Minnesota.” There are photographs and personal testimonials, and a few choice objects to look at. “We just wanted to start small and see what happens,” says Coventry. “We want the museum to be manageable, without a lot of overhead.”
The museum’s logo is similarly small and powerful: a modern interpretation of a West African symbol – four lines from different directions coming together and curling inward toward a united center. Coventry says the logo represents perseverance, strength and humility.
Having a museum to celebrate heritage and culture has long been the dream of many in the African American community in Minneapolis. Coventry – who co-founded the museum with Tina Burnside – remembers when she was growing up on the city’s south side, her parents and their friends met frequently and talked about creating a space to celebrate Minnesota’s African American history and a gallery to display African American art. “Oh, for 35 years or so,” Coventry offers, “the conversation has been going on.”
Tina, for her part, was already collecting and sharing artifacts and stories with members of her congregation at St. Peter’s AME Church. Hosting a “History Harvest” is what drew Coventry to her. “I showed up at Tina’s church because I had ulterior motives,” Coventry laughs. “It was not my church, but I went over there and there were all these people with their things and stories. So I waited until the end. I went up to her and I said, ‘Would you like to be part of a museum?’”
Tina signed on. “We are now calling her our historian because she is Chief Curator,” explains Coventry. Neither woman has ever run a museum before. In their partnership, Coventry serves as Chief Operating Officer, “Because I am in charge of keeping track of the details,” she declares. “So many details!”
The museum’s first exhibit is titled “Unbreakable: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota” and runs through the end of February, Black History Month. When asked about the title of the exhibit, Coventry explains:
Tina chose ‘Resilience’ for the title. I think it says a lot about African Americans during pioneer days as well as now. We tend to bounce back, we tend to brush ourselves off, and find other ways to reach our goals, to extend ourselves into the greater community and build a life for ourselves within the community. And that includes everything from fighting for our rights, to building businesses, to building corporations, to finding different avenues for a community to survive and thrive. Resilience is a powerful word.
Resilience is also what the museum seeks. Coventry says they are hoping to build a curriculum with programming to enhance school history lessons, reach audiences from diverse geographies and experiences, and work toward financial sustainability. Coventry says she is inspired by small museums in New York City and around the country, those collections that, despite their size, “energize community.” She looks to Minnesota’s rural communities – county collections and historical societies – that “show artifacts from farming and everyday life, showing those things that people cherish and help tell their stories.”
Coventry’s own grandparents arrived in Minnesota in 1900 – part of the “Great Migration” out of the Jim Crow south - and settled near Hutchinson. They took up farming, adding another skillset to what they already knew. Coventry’s grandfather had been a railroad worker and had fought in the Spanish American War (1898); her grandmother opened a truck farm to sell produce from their land.
That personal connection fuels Coventry’s work. By telling stories of early migrants to Minnesota at the museum, she opens up history to a new generation and presents a new way of thinking about African American settlement here. She says: “Many people think of African Americans in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, but we go way back in Minnesota! When George Bonga [one of the first African Americans born in Minnesota, 1802] was born, Minnesota was just a territory! They didn’t teach us that. I had no idea.”
The busloads of school children that flood the museum, and who Coventry leads on tours, often flock to the east wall of the museum that currently has contemporary photos by Walter Griffin. His colorful portraits are of African American women wearing their fancy “church best” hats. “I think the kids might think they look like their grandmothers,” offers Coventry. She hopes the little girls, especially, start seeing themselves in this museum collection, since often women are less present as museum subjects, even though women are integral to communities surviving and thriving. From there, Coventry says the children like the mannequins displaying clothing: one displays a replica of a 19th Century woman’s purple dress, and another is a donated military uniform. “The kids really want to touch the uniform,” she says, “put their arm around it, like it’s a real person.”
Coventry would like to be able to record and preserve stories from African Americans in the community about their own and ancestors’ experiences in Minnesota (a history harvest like at Tina’s church) and to have enough space to collect, store, catalog and display artifacts attached to those stories. For now, the small museum maintains big dreams: “We want visitors to open up their minds and thinking. We want the community to open up. When you invite everybody in, people who are open to their own stories and the stories of others, everybody learns.”
For more information: www.maahmg.org
Photo Credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Star Tribune, MPR News