The Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center (MAAM) opened its doors on Saturday June 2, for tours of their first exhibition—Bringing it Home, a “retrospective of Black N’ Brown baseball in Minnesota”—and a day of activities and performances by storytellers, dance and step troupes, and a visit by past Minnesota Twins Players. While the museum won’t open until fall, it was a chance for the community to get a sneak peek at what MAAM has to offer.
About two thousand people attended the festivities, said Roderic Southall, one of the curators for the exhibit. They closed off half of the block on Third Avenue, where there was a stage and different activities, such as a chance for kids to help make a giant Kirby Puckett sculpture with the assistance of visual artist Shirley Jones. New members also had a chance to sign a giant baseball sculpture, created by artist Charles Caldwell, which will act as a keepsake for MAAM in years to come. The number of new members doubled what the center expected to get, demonstrating community support for the center. By becoming members, the community was helping to build a foundation, he said.
Bringing it Home is an exhibit about the general history of black baseball players. In the front room, the exhibit gives historical context for black professional players. For example, visitors learn that there that Jackie Robinson was actually not the first African-American player to integrate professional baseball. A number of African-American players played for semi-integrated teams until 1887, when a “gentlemen’s agreement” was made by owners to exclude black players. The 1920s saw the formation of the Negro leagues, structured by pitcher and manager Rube Foster.
The exhibit also covers the impact of the depression during the 1930s, and the heyday of the Negro Leagues in the 1940s. The first room also gives homage to important people in the history of African American baseball, such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and a gorgeous panorama shot of the First Colored World Series. The room highlights in particular Bobby Marshall, a Minnesotan who made more money as a baseball player than as a lawyer, and women baseball players such as Toni Stone—a St. Paulite—and Effa Manley.
The second room focuses on John Donaldson, “the best black baseball player ever,” said Southall. Born in Wisconsin, Donaldson played 137 games in Minnesota, and drew enormous crowds to watch him play.
The third room shows a giant scoreboard and various items donated by the Twins, and the last room focuses on Jackie Robinson. Southall said Robinson is an iconic figure who in many ways is mythologized incorrectly. For example, though Robinson is often portrayed as someone who would turn the other cheek, he in fact was discharged from cavalry because he refused to move to the back of the bus.
Last weekend’s festival displayed a third of the artifacts that will be included in the full exhibition opening in the fall of this year, where it will be extended into the yet-unfinished second and third floors of the museum.
Originally, the baseball show was going to run June through the end of September. However, because MAAM has not yet raised enough funds for an elevator—which costs $1.5 million—they had to delay the opening to the fall. At this point, they are hoping to raise the money for the elevator by the end of the summer, rather than installing a temporary lift and accessible ramp, which would cost $150,000.
The current plan is run the baseball exhibit for two months after the museum opens in the fall. Future exhibits include Red and Brown—about the Native American and African American journey and beyond—and the North Star Pioneer exhibition. The third floor will house an Early Learning Literacy Center, containing the theme of storytelling with African-American themes. The exhibit will include giant storybooks, Givens said. MAAM will also house a theater and salon, where performances, lectures, and other events will take place.
The journey to open an African American museum in Minnesota began three years ago, Givens said. So far, they’ve made great strides, receiving a million-dollar bond from the state, which they’ve matched through other fundraising efforts.
While MAAM hasn’t officially been opened, they have been conducting several programs in public schools and charter schools. “We’ve been the go-to resources for many public school teachers,” Givens said. They provide lectures and workshops, and giving mini tours during the construction.
However, Givens said they don’t want to damage the artifacts, so they’ll be dismantling the Bringing It Home exhibit for the remainder of the construction.
“Minnesota is one of the few states without an African American repository,” Givens said. MAAM is not just a museum. “It is very clear [that] it has already been initiated as a gathering place,” she said. Her hope is that the center will be a hub for knowledge and learning.
“We want to break down on preconceived notions of race and the cultural bylaws and dialogues about color,” she said. The programming will be multi-purpose and multi-faceted, which will alter perceptions.
Some of the driving forces for creating the museum were the lack of an African American repository in the state as well as ther persistent achievement gap, Givens said. Given studies that show that if you don’t feel part of the cultural fabric or part of the community, it’s hard to become a full-fledged participant in the community, the goals for creating the museum and cultural center were to increase self-esteem in students of color. “As we went around and talked to educators and special interest groups, many kids of color and many kids coming from school districts had not even experienced entering a museum—much less an African American one,” she said.
The goal is to change that—not just for African American children, but also to provide a resource for children of African descent who do not identify as African American, as well as a place of learning for all children, Givens said.