A home for history: Black history museum planned for Stevens Square

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October 13, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

The state’s first black history museum coming to Southwest

STEVENS SQUARE — A new museum planned for a historic Southwest mansion could be the missing piece needed to revive stalled plans for an arts and culture corridor on 3rd Avenue.

More importantly to supporters of the project, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center would fill in a missing piece of Minnesota history. It would be the only museum solely dedicated to the history of the state’s African-American community.

“Many people say it’s just long overdue,” said Roxanne Givens, a prominent Twin Cities businesswoman who has led the project.

Givens said the museum would honor the contributions of black Minnesotans to the state and region. It would also serve as a community-gathering place, a destination for school groups and a base of operations for researchers and historians, she said.

While the names of some important black Minnesotans are well-known — like that of journalist and civil rights crusader Roy Wilkins — others are less known, despite their incredible contributions. The prolific inventor Fred Jones, for example, created refrigeration technology that contributed to the development of the modern supermarket.

While Givens was eager to share more of those stories with all Minnesotans, she said the region’s black community — and young people, in particular — needed to hear them.

“Without that core [of knowledge] it’s very, very difficult to move forward,” Givens said. “And I really think that’s the core that’s missing with our younger generations, with our children.”

In September, the City Council approved $1.5 million in tax-exempt bonds for the purchase and renovation of the 1883 Coe Mansion, 1700 3rd Ave. S., which was most recently a residence. The bonds were issued to South Minneapolis-based nonprofit Community Action, acting on behalf of the museum while Givens seeks 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

Givens planned to fundraise up to another $500,000 to complete the initial phases of the project.

A key location

In a book on the history of black Minnesotans, Givens’ own family might warrant a chapter.

Her father, Archie Givens, a successful businessman and real estate developer, was the state’s first black millionaire. In 1972, Archie Givens and his wife, Phebe, established The Givens Foundation that, in 1985, played a central role in purchasing a 3,000-piece collection of African-American literature now housed at the University of Minnesota.

When her father died in 1974, Givens took over his development business and ran it for nearly 30 years. Her brother, Archie Givens, Jr., now runs that company and also serves as president of The Givens Foundation.

In 1999, Givens founded Ethnic Homes Lifestyles, a company that focuses on incorporating culturally specific elements into home decorating and design.

Considering her family’s long history in Minneapolis, it was surprising the way Givens happened upon the “For Sale” sign outside the Coe Mansion.

“I got lost,” Givens said. “Now, mind you, I’m a third-generation Minnesotan, and I would never get lost in Minneapolis.”

Givens said she thought the 23-room mansion was beautiful, and arranged to get a tour. But it wasn’t until she stepped inside that she began to picture it as a museum.

“I think that, latent, the idea [for a museum] had always been rolling around,” she said. “I’m kind of a history buff on the legacies of communities, individuals. I’m kind of the family historian as well.”

“It just all came together,” she added, and laughed. “It was God, not I.”

Councilmember Robert Lilligren (6th Ward), who worked with Givens to win approval for the project, said the location of the museum was significant in more ways than one.

Lilligren said the push to transform 3rd Avenue into Arts Avenue began during the administration of former Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton. Since then, funding hadn’t kept up with the vision.

“This really reenergizes the idea of connecting the cultural and arts institutions along 3rd Avenue,” he said.

Lilligren noted, too, that the museum would be near some of the city’s most-diverse neighborhoods, including Central, Bryant and Field in South Minneapolis.

“These were some of the first neighborhoods in Minneapolis that integrated, racially,” he said. “Campaigning and just going through the communities, you’d hear these stories from some of the elders in those communities — African-American and European American — about the challenges of integration, and it was fascinating.”

“That sort of central swath of Minneapolis is still one of the most racially integrated parts of what is a very segregated city,” he said.

‘We were there’

While Givens emphasized the uplifting and inspiring stories she hoped to highlight in the museum, she said she would work with the community to approach topics like Minneapolis’ history of segregated neighborhoods.

“Even though some of the history is not pretty, we need to be able to tell that story, as well, in order to get the full perspective,” she said.

Good or bad, inspiring or ugly, too little of that history is understood by Minnesotans, argued some researchers and historians.

Daniel Bergin, a senior producer at Twin Cities Public Television, said black Minnesotans’ contributions to forming the state’s identity were underappreciated. Bergin’s attempt to reclaim their place was “North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers,” a documentary produced for the station in 2004.

“To know Minnesota’s story, you really need to know its African-American history,” he said.

As an example, Bergin said Minnesotans today associate the state’s progressive political identity with figures like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Wilkins. But it could be traced back even further to the writing of Minnesota’s constitution, when a then-small black community worked with Republican abolitionists to ensure the document embraced tolerance.

“We were there,” Bergin said, meaning not just during the state’s founding but also throughout its history. “Small in number, but notable in impact — not just on the African-American community, but the state in general.”

Community connection

One of the first historians to seek out and record the stories of black Minnesotans was David Taylor, now a provost at Dillard University in New Orleans. Taylor, who will serve as an informal consultant on exhibits, seized on the building’s other identity as an African-American cultural center, something missing in the city since the 1970s, he said.

In that respect, many of Givens’ plans — for performing arts programming in the mansion’s third-floor ballroom, for example — are aimed at attracting youth and young adults to the museum. Exposing black youth to a history they may not be familiar with can be “empowering,” Taylor said.

“Oftentimes, children grow up in communities and accept them as they are because they’ve not known any different,” he said. “You don’t see any part of yourself. You see what is, but you don’t understand that you are a continuation of what was.”

Taylor offered himself as an example of someone who, through knowledge of family and community history, was motivated to succeed. Givens, certainly, is another.

“[My father] had a way in which he could communicate his visions with diverse groups of all people from all walks of life,” she said.“And because of that a lot of his visions became reality.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at 436-434391 or dthomas@mnpubs.com.