Conversation: Tina Burnside

Tina Burnside at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery, June 19, 2021 • Photo: Eric Mueller

Tina Burnside grew up in Minneapolis, observing changes in her neighborhood. Today,  as the cofounder and curator of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG) she preserves the past to build a better future.

I was raised in the historic African American enclave on the southside of Minneapolis that included Bryant, Central and parts of the Regina neighborhoods, from Lake Street to 42nd Street, from 2nd Avenue to Chicago Avenue. Back in the day, it was one of the few places where Black people could buy houses in Minneapolis because of restrictive covenants and redlining. It was a close-knit Black neighborhood amongst a larger white population. There was a strong Black business district on 4th Avenue then: a grocery store, record store, barbers, beauty shops, night clubs, senior center and restaurants. The only business that remains on 4th Avenue is the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. 

I think the neighborhood is not as close-knit now because they closed local schools. Central High School was the heart of the neighborhood. It brought us together for ball games, and homecoming parades and gave us a sense of pride and connection. I went to Central for two years, before they closed it in 1982. Then I was bussed to Roosevelt High School. Over the years, I’ve watched the neighborhood change as elders pass away, people move and new people move in. There’s an effort to preserve the rich Black history while welcoming change.

After a stint as a journalist with the Milwaukee Sentinel, Burnside went to Law School and became a Civil Right Attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She has been a senior trial lawyer for 24 years, suing companies who discriminate against people in their employment. She continued to write, producing plays and a book “Have Mercy,” dealing with historical trauma.

I conducted History Harvest events where people from the community brought items from their personal artifacts and I would interview them and take a picture of them and the item, and that would tell a story of their life, or their family or their community. It was a good tool for capturing African American history. A lot of our history can be found in the personal stories from the past and in heirlooms in people’s homes. These artifacts tell history that is passed down through generations. But often, when the elder passed away, those stories and the significance of those artifacts was lost. 

I met Coventry Cowens at one of the History Harvest events. After I interviewed her, she said, “I’m starting a museum of Minnesota African American History, would you be interested in helping?” I said, ‘oh yeah, sure’, not having any idea what it takes to open a museum. 

In 2018, the two of them opened MAAHMG. Its mission is to preserve, document and celebrate African American history, art and culture in Minnesota. 

We have a permanent exhibit called “Unbreakable,” celebrating the resilience of African Americans in Minnesota, from the 1800s to the 1950s. Most people had no idea that Black people were here before Minnesota became a state. We highlight trailblazing Minnesota women, Blacks who served in the segregated military, and explore the Great Migration of Black people from the South to Minnesota. 

Currently we have an exhibit called, “Gather In His Name, From Protest to Healing for George Floyd” — photographic portraits from George Floyd Square that humanize the people involved in the movement — and another called, “The Absence of Justice,” which reflects on the continuity of injustice in America, as told through works of art. 

Since the murder of George Floyd, funders have focused more on diversity and supporting black-led organizations like ours, but it is a shame that a Black man had to die for people to see the value in Black history, art, and culture. I wonder how long this will last. Is this substantive or a momentary change?

The museum is a community gathering space, and a platform for Black artists, authors and creatives. We partnered with Black Fashion Week Minnesota, and we did a fashion show at our museum on the rooftop. We’re working to build a legacy and establish an institution in the Black community. To do so we need permanent ongoing funding.  

Burnside has strong viewpoints about how Minneapolis is handling justice after the murder of George Floyd.

It is a tale of two cities. The city has all this money to develop North Loop and downtown. Where is the money for economic development of Black businesses? Where is the money for creating living wage jobs? Where is the money to assist with homeownership to build generational wealth? If taxpayer dollars are being invested in affluent and predominantly white areas of the City, then taxpayer dollars can also be spent to address problems caused by systemic racism in Black communities. 

They still haven’t done anything about police reform. Training is not enough, because it is a problem of police culture. Police have been trained with a mindset of “us” against the enemy. The community is not the enemy. I think there should be residency requirements because if police live in the communities where they work, they are more likely to be invested in that community and get to know the people of the neighborhoods they patrol. They are less likely to see people as a threat but see them as humans who are in need of their help. 

There needs to be a shift in the public perception of the role of police. They are not trained or skilled to handle every issue for which they are called, particularly mental health issues. Maybe some non-violent issues get handled by restorative justice or community dispute resolution methods rather than police. Also, get rid of qualified immunity for police because that often shields officers from being held accountable for wrongdoing. If police officers break the law or engage in misconduct, they should be fired and held to the same standard as everyone else.

We can’t trust law enforcement because they put out false statements initially, and then they backtrack. They said Winston Smith was a murder suspect, but then they had to admit he was wanted on a warrant for possession of a weapon. The police initially said George Floyd died from a medical incident during police interaction. Have we not learned anything in a year? 

It is an ongoing struggle for justice. I have to give credit to those young people. They have a lot of resilience and a lot of endurance. They are staying on the front lines until they get resolutions, justice, and real change. 

You can read Tina’s full interview at Minnesota Interview Project

Connect with the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery.

Special Event August 28: When Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, artist seangarrison set up his easel outside the Hennepin County Government Center and painted Walking On Air, which captures the emotions of the crowd. Tina Burnside and seangarrison will engage in a conversation about the historic verdict and painting in a live discussion titled “Walking On Air – Capturing History on Canvas” from 3 to 5 pm at the Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. 

“I decided after the court date was announced that I would be creating art during and among the swell of energy of the people” said seangarrison, who is a MAAHMG artist-in-residence. “When a guilty verdict was announced there was collective roar of the people with joy in their voices.” The resulting artwork is an abstract explosion of bright hues in blue, yellow, green and orange. 

Burnside and seangarrison will explore a variety of topics including his emotions that day as he painted Walking On Air; the racial uprising in the Twin Cities; systemic racism; criminal justice reform; and the role of artists in social justice movements. 

The event is free, but reservations are required: