‘African-American history is American history’

New museum seeks to close knowledge gaps

Roxanne Givens in the new Minnesota African American Museum.
Photography by Sarah Whiting

Did you know that Toni Stone, who grew up in St. Paul, played Negro League baseball? Yes, that’s Toni with an “i.” Stone, who played second base, was the first of three black women to play professional baseball in the 1940s and ’50s.

Most people don’t know about Stone, and Roxanne Givens plans to remedy that. A fifth-generation Minnesotan, Givens is one of the founders and the primary force behind the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center (MAAM). Housed in the old Coe Mansion at the corner of 17th Street and Third Avenue S. in Minneapolis, MAAM’s mission, she says, is to “understand, uplift and unite through education.” She aims to close the gaps in the knowledge of Minnesotans about the many contributions of African Americans in Minnesota and the greater Midwest.

Baseball, ‘Northstar Pioneers’ and ‘Black Indians’
A dedication and legacy festival was held the first weekend in June, and MAAM is scheduled to open for regular hours in late August. Only the first floor of the three-story, red brick, Queen Anne-style mansion, tucked into a corner of the Stevens Square neighborhood, will be open to the public initially. The stark white walls and 11-foot ceilings provide the backdrop for the museum’s inaugural exhibit-“Bringing it Home: Black ‘n Brown Baseball in Minnesota and Beyond.”

Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball or Kirby Puckett hit the winning home run to send the 1991 World Series to game seven, culminating in the Minnesota Twins’ victory, black and brown players put their own stamp on the game. While the Negro Leagues boasted the likes of Leroy “Satchel” Paige and St. Paul’s Toni Stone, who assumed the second-base position vacated by Hank Aaron when he left the Indianapolis Clowns for Major League baseball, many African Americans played the game in states that weren’t home to a league team. In Minnesota, barnstorming teams such as the Colored Gophers and the Stillwater baseball club, carved out their own niche in the history of the game. Most of the teams were owned by black businessmen and provided employment for hundreds of blacks off the field.

MAAM’s first permanent exhibit: “Minnesota Northstar Pioneers,” is set to open in 2013, featuring many of the people who have helped to make Minnesota what it is today. Included will be familiar names such as Nellie Stone Johnson, influential in Minnesota civil rights and labor movements, and some not so familiar, such as Lena O. Smith, a prominent civil-rights attorney and a founder of the Minneapolis Urban League.

Also in 2013 MAAM will feature an exhibit on “Black Indians in Minnesota and the Midwest.”

There also is a traveling feature of the museum that opened before the building itself, known as the Trunk-It Series, a museum without walls. For about a year, historical re-enactors have traveled to schools and organizations to bring alive Minnesota historical figures such as Fredrick McGhee, one of America’s first African-American attorneys; Renaissance man Gordon Parks, a photographer, filmmaker, author, composer and musician; and Emily Goodridge-Grey, an author and 19th-century Minneapolis activist.

History lesson
Givens’ eyes sparkle and her voice exudes passion as she relates stories that will come alive at MAAM. But passion alone does not build a museum. It takes money and lots of it, $6 million for MAAM to be exact, and fundraising has been something of an uphill battle because she has had to educate potential funders about Minnesota African-American history first. Most of them “thought blacks arrived here in the [19]60s,” she said. “That’s our major thing: education.”

Once corporations and foundations learned more about the history of African Americans in Minnesota, they hopped on board enthusiastically, Givens said. Capital sponsors include Best Buy, Target, 3M, General Mills, Wells Fargo, The Minnesota Twins and the Pohlad Foundation.

Although she went into the museum business naively, Givens has put her heart and soul into the endeavor, volunteering the past three years to make MAAM a reality. But “I didn’t get up one day and say ‘I’m going to design a museum,'” she said. The seed of an idea came after Givens visited the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle three years ago. “After visiting I recognized the void in our cultural and artistic landscape,” Givens said.

A part of her has always recognized the void on a personal level. Having grown up in a state with a small African-American population, Givens has always sought information about African Americans, their lives and gifts to humanity.

“Just from interviewing my own family, I knew African-American culture had been around for generations, but you wouldn’t know it from what we’re taught in our schools. I went to Field Elementary School, and there were no books there by or about African Americans. There were a couple of books on ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ that I checked out over and over. I was just so excited to see a brown face.”

Givens wants more than that for the children of today. “We just feel that once kids and parents understand the achievements African Americans have made, it will be transformative. And that’s all kids and all parents, because African-American history is American history.”

What: Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center
Where: 1700 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
FFI: maamcc.org or 612-872-1655