History and culture have always been central to the life and work of Coventry Royster Cowens, in particular the heritage of Africans, African Americans, and other indigenous peoples around the world.
When Cowens’ grandparents arrived in McLeod County at the turn of the 20th century, it was to provide their children access to a better life. They eventually relocated to Minneapolis, where they owned and operated a store near East 38th Street and 4th Avenue South.
The move also made it easier for their kids—including Coventry’s mother, who was born in the City of Lakes and graduated from Central High School—to pursue their dreams of higher education nearby at the University of Minnesota.
Cowens has always kept these same values and principles close to her heart, stating that family provides her the “solid foundation” that keeps her grounded in many areas of her life.
An alumna of Mankato State University, where she reveals she received an “eye-opening education,” Cowens spent many years working as a marketing consultant and sales rep. This includes time with some of the state’s computer industry giants like the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and Control Data Corporation, as well as Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU in Austin, Texas.
Nonetheless, Cowens explains that her most rewarding career experiences have always been in the “academic arena” such as her time working with students at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, her first job after graduating from college.
She always stayed close to the world of social and educational services, volunteering with the nonprofit organizations Friendship Ventures, LTL International Leadership Institute, and the Minneapolis Urban League. After completing the MBA Certificate Program at the University of St. Thomas, Cowens moved on from the corporate world, becoming the assistant director of multicultural and international programs and services at St. Catherine University.
This gave her the opportunity to travel, and after visiting a number of museums across the globe, the seed was planted to one day establish her own museum. “Presenting history in our own words, in our own narrative, is important for all to see. It shows how we value our beginnings and achievements in history,” said Cowens,
“The desire to create a space that is by, for, and about African Americans—a place that allows us to see ourselves and our contributions throughout history—is vital to our development and continued growth not only here in Minnesota, but throughout the world.”
Cowens and Tina Burnside came together to co-found the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in 2018, launching the MAAHMG’s inaugural exhibit “Unbreakable: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota.”
Cowens said that a museum should serve as an oasis of discovery, an educational resource for current and future generations, which only motivates her to maintain a “focused determination” as she manages the MAAHMG.
Although many would differ, Cowens does not view herself as a leader. Instead, she just wants to make sure that the history, culture and legacy of African Americans and the African diaspora around the world is properly preserved and presented for all to see. And, as someone who moves about the museum daily, one of the things that always inspires her, that makes her know this is all working, is when she hears a visitor say, ‘I didn’t know that!’
To other young women looking to follow in her footsteps, Cowens, who in 1998 reached Uhuru Peak at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, encourages them to “follow your dreams no matter how tough the path. Like climbing a mountain, the route traverses, but it ascends toward those dreams.”
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