Group plans Minn. museum of African American historyby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — African Americans have lived in Minnesota since before statehood. They're the state's largest minority population. But there's never been a museum devoted to black Minnesotans.
A group of local African Americans is working to change that. They've purchased the historic Amos Coe mansion in Minneapolis, and need to complete a $5 million fundraising campaign to turn it into a museum.
These days the Coe Mansion is dusty and empty, but Bobby Moenck is already used to giving tours of the building. She points out the wide formal stairway -- which was built to accomodate hoop skirts -- and the eight fireplaces.
Moenck is one of the founding members of a group working to turn the home into the state's first African American museum.
A real estate developer named Amos Coe built the house in 1883. Moenck calls it the "Mercedes of homes" of the times. Now it sits right next to Interstate 94.
The mansion is two and a half stories tall. Each room is a unique shape. Many have elaborate wood carvings which decorate large windows. But the home is in disrepair, and some walls and ceilings are worn away.
The home served for years as rental housing. But it had been empty for two decades when local businesseswoman Roxanne Givens first saw it.
As Givens tells it, she got lost while driving one day, and stopped when she saw the Coe Mansion with a "For Sale" sign in front.
"When I walked through the doors, I thought it was a place for a museum. I had to enter the threshold, and that just popped in my mind. And boy, it's been a mission ever since," she said.
That was in June 2008. Over the next six months, Givens formed a new organization that raised the funds to buy the property.
Since then the group has secured funding for renovations and exhibits from private, corporate, federal and city sources. A bill before state lawmakers would put more money toward the cause.
Givens says African Americans need to know about their culture and its history in Minnesota.
"They need to know who they are. They need to know they just weren't swept upon the shore here," said Givens. "Unfortunately, I think a significant number of our kids believe that."
"A museum of this nature is significant because it is empowering. It gives us a direction. It is almost like a beacon," Givens added. "It's going to bring about a great deal of connectivity among all populations, but specifically populations of color."
Givens says she hopes the museum can be a place where African immigrants and African Americans learn about each other.
"The cultures and traditions are always going to remain with each ethnic group, but what will happen will be a learning on all parts," she said. "We're populations that are not going anywhere, and we need to know how to make it work as a whole in a new movement for change."
The process may take place slowly. The museum will at first borrow artifacts from other organizations. With time, it'll build up its own collection with rotating exhibits.
Sharon Kennedy Vickers is in charge of planning those exhibits.
"We want it to be interactive, we want it to be able to appeal to a variety of generations. We want it to be participatory," said Vickers. "Sound and music and movement is a part of our culture, so we want our museum spaces and exhibits to reflect that."
Exhibits will touch on figures like George Bonga the first African American born in Minnesota, who served as a translator of Indian languages; Eliza Winston, who was brought to Minnesota as a slave and won her freedom in court; Lena Smith, the first African American woman licensed as a lawyer in Minnesota; and Roy Wilkins, a University of Minnesota graduate who went on to become president of the NAACP and a key figure in the civil rights movement.
Vickers says the museum will also focus on contributions by African Americans in Minnesota today.
"They can record their story as well, so that they can leave their impact," she said.
Vickers says she hopes students will describe their personal history for the museum, and then also record what they plan to do for their culture and Minnesota in the future.
Organizers expect to open the museum to the public in December.
- All Things Considered, 02/15/2010, 5:54 p.m.