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Meet Tina Burnside & Coventry Cowens; the Black Women Who Established Minnesota’s First African American Museum

Although the first black settlers to land in Minnesota more than two centuries ago, their stories have not been shared as extensively and no repository for their history and heritage.

All that changed in 2018 when two women established the first ever black museum to “preserve, record and highlight the achievements, contributions and experiences of African Americans in Minnesota”.

The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery was established by Tina Burnside and Coventry Cowens after 30 years of attempts to set up such a repository.  

Burnside is a civil rights attorney and writer in Minneapolis, who has worked in various projects for the Minnesota Historical Society and the Hennepin History Museum related to African American history in the state.

Cowens has worked as an assistant director of multicultural programs and services at a Twin Cities university and has experience in computer technology and social services. She is currently the museum’s interim operations coordinator.

“This is basically a dream come true. It’s been a part of my dream as a resident of Minnesota to have some place that highlights contributions African Americans have made to the state and region,” Cowens said.

The discussions about the project started as far back as 2017 when the two decided to set up the museum. It involved holding meetings with different organisations and local authorities to handle the logistics. 

One of the most notable things about the museum is its logo, the West African Adinkra symbol, Dwennimmen. 

We chose this symbol because it represents the African American story in the United States. Despite enslavement, segregation, discrimination, and other abuses, African Americans have shown grace, perseverance, courage, resistance and resilience.
Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery

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The Museum, registered as a non-profit, opened its doors in October 2018 with the Unbreakable: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota exhibition, which highlighted the early black settlers in the 1800s, black female heroes, the Great Migration from the South, as well as war veterans who fought overseas but faced racism at home. 

Photo: Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery/Facebook

The population of black people in Minnesota developed from those who born in the state and others who moved south in search for a better life. They faced discrimination and racism but were able to create communities and institutions that have stood the test of time and have been contributed to the existence of the state.

Among such people is George Bonga, who is believed to be the first black person to be born in Minnesota. He was the child of a black father and Ojibwe mother. He grew up to be an influential business person and eventually had a town- Bungo Township in Cass County- named after his family.

A portrait of George Bonga, created about 1870 by St. Paul photographer Charles Zimmerman. Bonga was the first black person to be born in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Over the years, the community not only provided community centres and founded newspapers such as the Western Appeal and Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, but they also founded churches such as the  St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The opening of the museum comes at a time when discussions about the importance of learning the history of black people in America have been making waves. 

“African American history is American history. We need to get the full picture of the role and impact of African American contributions to the state of Minnesota. A lot of time that history is not taught in schools,” 
Burnside said.

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