Black history exhibit just scratches the surface

In the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center, two stories beneath the main entrance, you’ll come off the escalator and walk into the gallery, which is currently featuring the Black History in Minnesota 101 exhibit. The exhibit is on display until March 28, Monday through Friday from 7:30 am to 6 pm.

The exhibit is beautifully curated by Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Christopher Aaron Deanes and demonstrates a great job in telling the story of Black history in Minnesota in such a limited space. The exhibit features well over 150 pictures, artifacts, and memorabilia sectioned into themes to tell the story of African Americans in Minnesota. While Janzen and Deanes used the limited space very well, the artifacts displayed leaves those who are interested wanting more and wishing it was in a more interactive area.

Some of the prominent faces visitors can expect to see are the newly elected officials Melvin Carter and Andrea Jenkins, both of whom recently made history by becoming, in Carter’s case, the first Black mayor of St. Paul, and in Jenkins’, one of the first openly transgender Black woman to be elected to public office. Visitors will also see images of the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters and WNBA Minnesota Lynx star Seimone Augustus. And, no tribute to Black history in Minnesota would be complete without paying homage to Minneapolis-born music pioneer and legend Prince Nelson.

Artifacts from Sounds of Blackness, Doris Hines and Prince (Photos by Khymyle Mims)

“I want [visitors] to come and find connections to stories that they already know about Black life in Minnesota,” says exhibit curator Janzen. “[I also] want them to see someone new, someone [like] a rising star or a story that they never knew about that shows what early Black inhabitants of the state were doing here and how they were living their lives, and how long we have been a part of the history of Minnesota.

“And then I hope that they will come and experience this with a friend, and probably tell us what they think should be in the show but is not. That means that they are engaged, that they are interested, and that they feel invested in the legacy of Black Minnesota, and that makes me excited,” Janzen says.

The exhibit begins with the story of George Bonga, the first African American born in the territory of Minnesota. While visitors read Bonga’s story, they’ll also read about very early African American history prior to and during the process of Minnesota becoming the 32nd state. Within the brief history transcribed lies the stark fact that Minnesota was once home to 20 enslaved Blacks.

The centerpiece is a tribute to women throughout the history of African Americans in Minnesota. This was a pleasant surprise as they are often overlooked, and many that are featured are still alive and active, highlighting just how recent a lot of this history is.

Includes Launa Q. Newman, Sharon Sayles Belton, and Sarah Bellamy (Photo by Khymyle Mims)

One of the women featured is MSR’s very own Launa Q. Newman, publisher of MSR (then the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder) from 1976 to 2007. Other well-known names are Penumbra’s Sarah Bellamy, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sales-Belton, and the only woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, Toni Stone.

Janzen wanted to highlight Angela Steward-Randle, who is currently serving as a colonel in the Minnesota National Guard. In telling the story, Janzen explains that she holds the highest position ever held by an African American woman in Minnesota’s National Guard, and points out the maternity uniform that was donated to the exhibit.

Jansen explains why many artifacts and photos that were donated to the exhibit aren’t being featured. The process of elimination was a tough one. In fact, the curating team composed a collection of several #BlackLivesMatter yard signs to show its role in the history of Black folks in Minnesota. After spending countless hours, the piece had to be scrapped because the exhibit is housed in a government building where rules don’t allow display of any political or campaign signs.

In the religious section, visitors can read about Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Peter Claver, and the growing Muslim population in Minnesota. Artifacts in this part of the exhibit include a robe from Father Stephen Theobald, the original pastor of St. Peter Claver; a pew from Pilgrim Baptist church; and stained glass from St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

George Bonga, first Black Minnesotan (Photo by Khymyle Mims)

Viewers will also see represented all the major sports teams in the Twin Cities, from Vikings jerseys to photos of current Timberwolves players like Minnesota’s own Tyus Jones and Andrew Wiggins. The curators also highlighted the Twins and their legends Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett.

Spectators end their exhibit experience with music with respect paid to key components of the famous Minneapolis Sound. Sounds of Blackness Music Director Gary Hines donated an NAACP award and a plaque they received for The Evolution of Gospel and Africa to America; the Journey of the Drum. Hines also donated some visual pieces honoring his late mother, Doris Hines, and her career as a singer.

The exhibit is packed with too much for one article to name. The curators did a spectacular job capturing Black history in Minnesota, as it is truly a crash-course exhibit. Janzen puts it best, stating that it’s not really 101 but rather 001 and just scratching the surface.


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