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Two Visionary Women Open Minnesota’s First African-American Museum

The new Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery in North Minneapolis, was founded by civil rights attorney Tina Burnside and writer/education administrator Coventry Cowens. The museum, which is set up to address a long-standing gap in the Twin Cities has some of the missing history you don’t easily find in places like Minnesota History Center or even the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

A reproduction of a 19th century purple dress white lace collar, stands in the museum as if waiting to be worn by its owner. In another end, under a glass case a copy of the Green-Book – an historic guide that steered travelers towards black-welcoming businesses. And in front of floor-to-ceiling windows, stands large panels with detailed explanation of the history of African-Americans in Minnesota.

“Minnesota is one of the few states that does not have a museum dedicated to the African-American people in the state,” said Burnside. And on the question as to why it has taken so long to do this, with 30 years of failed attempts, she said, “I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps it’s a question for the people of Minnesota.”

The museum is ran entirely on volunteer basis and on its opening on Sept. 8th, more than 200 people filled the spacious fourth-floor gallery. The Museum is situated in the Thor Construction headquarters at Penn and Plymouth avenues N, a gallery it shares with Copeland Art and Training Center.

The museum is more of a mini-history center, closely similar to places like Somali Museum of Minnesota or Hennepin History Museum.


The tribune reports that, “The inaugural exhibition, “Unbreakable: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota,” which runs through December, focuses on early settlers in the 1800s, black female heroes, the Great Migration from the South, and war veterans who fought abroad yet faced racism at home. Exhibitions will rotate every three to four months. The next one, opening in January, will focus on the civil rights movement in Minnesota before the 1960s, with a focus on the development of the NAACP in the Twin Cities and Duluth in the early 1900s.”

Cowens and Burnside met at an event dedicated to celebrating African-American history. At the time she was already thinking of the museum idea. She said, “I had some time on my hands and the church was just a block from my house. I walked over and watched what was going on. Tina had a moment and I just started talking to her.”

She also added that, “I was getting positives. At that point I needed someone else I could work with to go forward — I didn’t think it should be a one-person vision or dream.”

When Cowens shared the idea with Burnside – she said yes and they began talking and meeting people. The museum has a five-person board and is open to more volunteers.

“There’s been a suppression of African-American history and I feel that as a result we get passed over for so many things — when there are new programs for marginalized people, we aren’t usually considered. I think mainly because we don’t fit into any category, we’re not immigrants per se,”Verlena Matey-Keke, a member of the new museum’s board, believes.



Written by How Africa

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