A historic Minneapolis home, built in the late nineteenth century as a shining statement for the city’s new upper-crust community, soon will be transformed into Minnesota’s first Black museum.
Built in 1884 by a prominent local doctor, the three-storied Coe Mansion allowed its occupants to look down on the newly created city, incorporated just a few years earlier in 1867. “This was the upper class of downtown,” said Bob Monk, adding that the builder of the house “put in all the bells and whistles.”
“The house went on the National Historic Registry in 1980,” explained Roxanne Givens of the new Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center.
However, before it opens, a huge restoration project is now underway, keeping intact most of the house’s original features while redesigning the interior to meet the new museum’s needs.
Located on 3rd Avenue South, across the bridge over Interstate 94, and facing the rear of the Minneapolis Convention Center, “It had been sitting empty for almost a decade and a half,” said Givens during a recent tour. “The building is pretty much intact.”
Visitors to the home will find it remarkably soundproofed, barely realizing that just a few feet away is one of the area’s busiest intersections where I-94 and I-35W meet. “Even as close as we are to the freeway, you can hardly hear [the traffic],” marveled Givens as she looked out the window.
The home at one time was subdivided as an unauthorized boarding house, so putting it back into its original form will be a huge undertaking, said Monk, who is overseeing the project. “Some of the floors will have to be replaced,” he noted.
An elevator also will be installed “because we want this to be an accessible building to everybody,” said Givens.
Givens, whose family is renowned for its contributions to Minneapolis’ Black culture and history, is a longtime local businesswoman. But she quickly admits that building a nonprofit operation from the ground up is a novel experience.
“I know nothing about the nonprofit world whatsoever,” she pointed out. “This is a brand new animal.”
Givens has been actively planning the new Black museum since August 2008, with the invaluable experience of Monk and Sharon Kennedy Vickers. “We all believe strongly in the need for a museum here in Minnesota,” she said.
“Bobby, Roxanne and I all went into this with the belief that this is going to happen, and we have the fortitude to make it happen,” added Vickers, who is primarily responsible for fundraising. At least $5 million is needed – $2.8 million for renovation costs and $3 million for initial operating costs and establishing a sustainability endowment.
“We don’t want to just open the doors,” said Vickers. “We want to be here 10, 30 years down the road. We’re at the beginning stages. We are working to establish relationships with the foundations whose funding priorities match our mission. We’ve accomplished a lot, but we have a long way to go.”
“A lot of people told us that we were crazy to start a museum,” Vickers said, but she insists that establishing a Black museum is important. “I think there is a perception here, particularly here in Minnesota and in the Midwest, that African Americans haven’t really contributed to Minnesota society, or the American culture at all. We want to dispel that myth.”
“We’ve got the presence of many immigrants and ethnic groups [in Minnesota],” Givens pointed out, adding that there are several ethnic-themed museums already established. “Now we will be able to tell the story on how we, the African American pioneers, helped build this city, and all the surrounding cities as well,” she said.
The museum will be a place locally where “a legacy of excellence” for Black people can be celebrated and studied, said Vickers, who has a degree in political science and African American studies from the University of Georgia.
“That’s my reason for being involved with the project.” She relocated to Minnesota from Georgia six years ago.
“We are going to have eight exhibit spaces,” said Givens of the proposed museum when completed. Each exhibit will help to tell the story of Blacks in Minnesota. “If we don’t know about our history, we are unable to communicate that to others.”
“So many times our history has been pushed aside and forgotten,” said Monk.
One such exhibit is expected to feature “the politics of freedom…how slave owners in the South traveled here to Minnesota with their slaves,” said Vickers. “There were a couple of cases of slaves declaring their freedom, and winning their freedom. [Minnesota] doesn’t have the legacy of slavery, but we will be able to tell that story for Minnesota schoolchildren.”
The new museum is expected to be a place “where [Black] culture is alive,” noted Givens. “Music, language, religion, literary – everything. We will have events that are relevant today: book signings, trunk shows, and a lot of things that engage the youth and the community.
“We do not have a showcase here in our state [such as] many other [ethnic] groups do around the state,” Givens continued. “There is not a beacon, a force and an enlightenment that occurs in the city for people of color. We see conferences being held in some of our spaces after hours. We see it as a true resource to the community.”
Also, Givens said she hopes that the museum will further relations between American Blacks and the various local African communities. “The story of their journey and the story of our journey from slavery to Minnesota will develop some commonality and some new levels of respect.”
“It is going to be a top-notch museum,” predicted Vickers. “We want this museum to be interactive, not just photos on the wall. We don’t want a static museum.”
“We are the founders of the vision of this museum,” Givens said of herself, Monk and Vickers, but she added that others are involved as founding board members, including Harry Davis, Jr. and Dan Bergin of Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), “who has a passion for Minnesota history and vision through the eyes of and for African Americans.
“We will have a variety of opportunities for everybody in the community to serve in one capacity or the other,” she pointed out.
Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, Minnesota State Representative Karen Clark and U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison are among several local and national elected officials who have offered their support for the project as well, said Givens.
In September, the Minneapolis City Council approved $1.5 million in tax-exempt bonds for the purchase and renovation of the mansion. Rep. Ellison announced at the end of October that he had secured a $150,000 appropriation to renovate the building.The funds are included in H.R. 2996, the Interior-Environment Appropriations Bill for FY 2010.
“The Coe Mansion is a treasured Minneapolis landmark,” Ellison stated. “That is why I am pleased to have secured our fair share of federal funds to renovate the mansion. When completed, we will look with great pride upon Minnesota’s first African American Museum.”
“We will get this accomplished,” Monk said. “This is not only Minnesota-based, but this is Midwest-based. That I am taking part in history to produce this – 50 years from now, they can look back and say Roxanne Givens, Bobby and Sharon put together an idea, and they ran with it.”
“This is for the community,” concluded Givens.
For more information or to volunteer any artifacts for use by the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center, call 952-649-0080 or email Roxanne@ethnichome.com.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com, or read “The Third Eye” blog: www.challman.wordpress.com.