Black History Month Reflection

By Lauren Kirchberg

Black History Month is an intentional timeframe during the calendar year to learn more about Black history and honor the experiences of Black people in America. This year's Black History Month theme, African Americans and the Arts, prompted me to pay a visit my city's African American history and art museum. Like many other cities, Minneapolis has a rich history that influences today's culture and the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG) focuses on the past and present cultural impact made by African American artists and trailblazers. Below are some of my personal learnings about the city I call home:  

About - Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery

The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery (MAAHMG) was founded by Tina Burnside and Coventry Cowens on September 8th, 2018 with the goals educating people on African American contributions, achievements, and presence in Minnesota's history. However, I learned the museum also serves as a community center where people can come together in a safe space. The museum is intentionally free to ensure accessibility and also focuses heavily on community engagement efforts through local artist residency programs, children's reading circles, and more.

My Learnings

Visiting the MAAHMG provided me with a much deeper understanding of the history of the community I live in and the people who influenced the community. As I walked in the door, Coventry, a co-founder of MAAHMG, greeted me and provided context on the exhibits. Immediately after entering I walked to the history exhibit with banners outlining  Minneapolis and Minnesota's African American history dating back to the 1800s. The banners identified individuals, organizations, and events that sparked change in the local area. Coventry noted the importance of including pictures and names when telling the African American story in Minnesota to both honor and emphasize Black history as Minneapolis history. 

This was made even more evident after learning current members of the community come to the museum to see their ancestry in the pictures as many family members of those highlighted are still living in Minneapolis. Click the drop downs below to learn about a few said individuals the museum.

The following information is from 'UNBREAKABLE: Celebrating the Resilience of African Americans in Minnesota' MAAHMG museum exhibit.

  • Solomon Hughes Sr.
    The Professional Golfers Association (PGA), similar to other athletic groups, had a long history of racial discrimination. Solomon Hughes Sr. experienced this discrimination first hand as many courses and clubs in Minneapolis refused to hire him even though he was considered a pro.  In addition to this, both Hughes and a fellow golfer, Ted Rhodes, were denied entrance into locally hosted PGA events. It was not until 1953 that Hughes and Rhodes were accepted to play in the St. Paul Open after the PGA faced protests led by Joe Louis. In 2021, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board honored Hughes by renaming the Hiawatha Golf Course Clubhouse (which he helped integrate) to Solomon Hughes, Sr. Clubhouse.
  • Nellie Stone Johnson
    Nellie Stone Johnson worked as an elevator operation at the Minneapolis Athletic club making $15.00 a week. In 1934, after her wages were cut to $12.50 a week, Johnson began organizing workers to help form Local 665 of the Hotel Employees Union. This spark of activism led her to continue pushing for civil rights and breaking barriers as she became the first Black person and first woman Vice President of the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union as well as the first woman to serve on a national contract committee to negotiate equal pay for women. Through her work, Johnson fought to end segregation of employee cafeteria and locker room facilities at the Minneapolis Athletic Club. In addition to her union work, Johnson was one of the founders of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, and she became the first Black official elected to citywide office in Minneapolis in 1945.
  • John Francis Wheaton
    In 1894 John Francis Wheaton became the first Black person to graduate from the University of Minnesota law school using his knowledge to combat racism on a personal level and through policy development. Wheaton led multiple race related lawsuits ranging from refusal of service all the way to false accusations.  In 1898, Wheaton became the first Black person elected to the Minnesota legislature and introduced an amendment that became law in 1899 which prevented businesses from refusing service based on race. 
  • Amanda Lyles
    After opening the Hair Bazaar (later called Mrs. T.H. Lyles Hair Emporium) in 1880, Amanda Lyles became one of the first women entrepreneurs in Minnesota. As an active community member, Lyles was also president of the State Federation of Afro-American Women's Clubs, a member of the African American branch of the state Women's Christian Temperance Union, and active in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). At the NACW Lyles and her co-members advocated against lynching, discrimination, injustice, voting discrimination, and segregation. In 2014, Lyles was the first Black woman inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame.
  • Debbie Montgomery
    Debbie Montgomery was an active advocate and changemaker in Minnesota. At just 17 years-old, Montgomery became the youngest member on the national board of the NAACP. In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When she was a freshman at the University of Minnesota (1965), Montgomery and her fellow students traveled to Alabama to march in support of voting rights. At the University of Minnesota, Montgomery received a master's degree in urban planning and began a career in civil service. After receiving a court order requiring more Black officers in the St. Paul Police Department, the mayor of St. Paul asked Montgomery to enroll in the police academy. She became the first female police officer in St. Paul, and excelled at her job. After retiring, Montgomery was elected to St. Paul City Council, and she advocated for businesses and the government to invest in St. Paul's Black community. 
In addition to the history section, the MAAHMG also has an art section, which highlights present day artists from the area. The resident on display during my visit was Donna Ray. In her exhibit, focused mainly through the ceramics medium, Donna explores women's contributions to education, finance, and real estate. Her work is inspired by her ancestors and women who have worked hard, yet who were not given the spotlight because they had to take care of others. Additionally, Donna noted, "Black history is part of my history...[and] black history is everywhere." The title of her gallery was 'Women's Equity and Gender Fluidity [3A's] Education, Finance, and Real Estate' and below are a few photos of her work: 
One of the pieces that moved me were a set of intricately detailed, large ceramic spoons. This piece is symbolic of nourishment and sustenance, two things women have been historically responsible for. The faces on the top of the spoon represent family and those working to not only feed but also contribute financially to the family. The spoons celebrate the women all around the world who work and care for others.

Donna's exhibit reminds us our communities are not just the ones we live and work in. We are a part of a larger human community, one that we leave a mark on each day. Every place we go, every person we meet, we should think about how we are interacting with and experiencing community. 

Hear more from Donna Ray on her art gallery here: Donna Ray: MAAHMG Artist In Residence

In addition to Donna's exhibit, the MAAHMG has done a lot of other community-related initiatives. Check out their website to learn more about the work they have done! | Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery

After this experience, I better understand the community I live in, the African American history that shaped the community, and how African American art and artists continue to build community. This Black History Month and beyond, I encourage everyone to learn more about African American art and artists by visiting their local African American history or art museums, support Black owned organizations and restaurants, and engage in the community by leaning into this year's theme!


Visit an African American History/Art Museum

Below are states where The Resource Group has Participant presence. Click on the state you are in (or visiting) and you will be directed to an African American History Museum in your state!