Amid construction, African American museum to open

STEVENS SQUARE — “If students cannot see their culture, their ethnicity represented in some scope in their curriculum, they will check out.”

Those are the words of historian and DeLaSalle High School teacher Shvonne Johnson. Here’s Harry Davis, son of W. Harry Davis, the Minneapolis businessman, civil rights activist and civic leader: “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”

Both are arguing for the existence of a museum dedicated to the history of black Minnesotans, a vision that takes another step toward reality in June when the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center opens its doors to the public for the first time. The museum, affectionately known as MAAM to its supporters, is the vision of Twin Cities businesswoman Roxanne Givens, who began to pursue her dream in earnest about four years ago, when she spotted the “For Sale” sign outside the historic Coe Mansion in Stevens Square, the museum’s future home.

“We’re one of only six states that does not have an African American museum,” Givens said. “All the other states have this hub where children can go to be recognized, to be valued.”

MAAM makes its tentative debut during the June 2 Legacy Festival, a free public event that will stretch from the museum to nearby Stevens Square Park. Its home, an 1883 Queen Anne-style former residence, was still undergoing extensive renovations in mid-May, which means its first exhibit — a retrospective of black baseball in Minnesota that has received support from the Minnesota Twins — will open only about one week for private tours, but then must be temporarily de-installed while construction continues on the building’s upper floors.

It’s not the opening Givens imagined — more like a “plan D,” she joked in May. But the June events will be crucial to rallying more community and financial support for the museum, which Givens anticipates could open for regular hours by the start of next school year.

The renovation of the Coe Mansion and construction of an adjacent cultural center are expected to cost $6.1 million. Givens said she had raised over $2.5 million to date.

Work on the cultural center remains “on the backburner” for now, she said, due in part to disagreements over its design with the National Park Service, which has its say in the matter because the Coe Mansion appears on the National Register of Historic Places. They’ve also tangled over the location of an elevator required for disability access that, at an estimated cost of $1.1 million, is one of the most expensive components of the entire project.

Givens projected the cultural center would open in 2014.

Even as work continues on MAAM’s physical home, one of its programs is already up and running in Twin Cities schools. Its Trunk-It series, run by husband-and-wife team Anura and Rekhet Si-Asar, sends trained actors into classrooms where they portray key figures from state history, like Frederick McKinley Jones, the black entrepreneur whose inventions revolutionized refrigerated truck transportation.

Jones’ air-cooling units preserved medical supplies on the battlefield during World War II and had a significant impact on food transportation at home, playing a role in the evolution of the modern supermarket. Still, Rekhet Si-Asar said, “A lot of the children had never heard of him, and even the teachers were like, ‘We’ve never heard of this.’”

The man who may have been the first black Minnesotan, George Bonga, was born in 1802, more than 50 years before the Minnesota Territory was made a state, yet blacks get short shrift in the history books, Johnson said.

“It’s almost like we’re this invisible people,” she said, adding that the contributions of indigenous communities, too, are often overlooked in a history that emphasizes the role of European immigrants.

Davis, whose own family goes back 150 years in the state, recalled visits to the American Swedish Institute as a schoolboy, and the “excitement” he felt about visiting museums and digging into different cultures. And he sees MAAM’s mission as very similar: It’s a place that highlights one part of Minnesota to give us a better understanding of the whole.

Said Davis: “It’s another link in our history of people that have made contributions to Minnesota.”