Ramsey County Libraries celebrate Black History Month with a diverse itinerary

The Penumbra Theatre will present scenes from the play ‘Bearing Witness: The Ballad of Emmett Till,’ Feb. 6 at Roseville Library. (submitted photo)

Actress Thomasina Petrus from the Mixed Blood Theatre’s ‘Daughters of Africa - a Musical Celebration.’ (submitted photo)

This February, Ramsey County Libraries will celebrate diversity with a series on black history. The Roseville and Maplewood branches of the library will present five free events  as part of their month-long public education program on African-American history.

Judy Woodward, the history coordinator for Ramsey County Libraries,  organized the series to honor Black History Month and join a Ramsey County-wide initiative to promote diversity.

The programming will highlight some of the history of Minnesota and the different cultural groups within the state.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive look at black history, Woodward said the approach is a creative itinerary that includes presentations from local historians, performances from Twin Cities theatre companies and a film screening. 

Local historians, national history

The library series kicks-off on Feb. 6 with popular Osher Lifelong Learning Institute professor J.B. Andersen. Andersen will present his civil rights lecture “FDR and Black Aspirations.”

Andersen says the look back at ‘30s and ‘40s civil rights issues is more relevant than it may first appear.

“Talking about civil rights during the 1930s is a bit unusual,” he admits. “But the fact is that there were civil rights ... and minority leaders at that time who were making efforts to try to better the lives of minorities in the United States.”

His lecture will focus on local history as well, including President Roosevelt’s 1942 visit to the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in what would later be incorporated as Arden Hills. “They had been hiring a good many minorities and he wanted to see how that was working,” Andersen explains, adding that the visit was top-secret. “No one knew about it. He came down in the middle of the night.” But someone’s loose lips must have let it slip: Andersen is going to show photographs from Roosevelt’s clandestine trip.

Other events at the libraries will focus on various aspects of the civil rights movement. On Feb. 11, the Penumbra Theatre will present a scene from this season’s play “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the story of a 14-year old boy, who, in 1955, was murdered in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman. “That was one of the events that really sparked the conscience of America in the 1950s,” Woodward notes.

Model Cities of St. Paul will present its research on the Pullman Porters of St. Paul on Feb. 13. Under the leadership of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, the Pullman Porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first all-black union in the U.S. Some of the porters still live in St. Paul, and Woodward hopes that a few of them will stop by the library to share their stories.

The Maplewood library will screen feature-length movies inspired by black history on Feb. 14.  Later that weekend, Mixed Blood Theatre will conclude the Black History Month festivities on Feb. 16 with its long-running, music-powered history “Daughters of Africa: A Musical Celebration.” The upbeat, high-energy performance will feature songs from Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah and many others, all performed by tour-de-force soloist Thomasina Petrus.  

A lasting legacy

The Black History Month series is made possible by the 2008 Legacy Amendment, which sets aside funds for the preservation of art and culture through Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. 

Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund supported a number of series at Ramsey County Libraries. Most recently, it funded the series “World War II — A New Look at Total War” which was presented last fall.

With a topic as broad as black history, Woodward says it was difficult to decide which events to present, but she’s proud of the line-up.

“I wanted stories that were new to our audiences and I think I achieved that,” she says. “I hope that they get a renewed appreciation of black history but also of Minnesota’s role in this aspect of American history.”

She said she also hopes the program will spark people’s curiosity.

“Ideally, someone will come to one of our programs, see it, think ‘This is great!’ and look for more to learn.”

For more details on Ramsey County Libraries’ Black History Month series, visit www.rclreads.org/events-and-classes/black-history-month.

Kaylin Creason can be reached at staffwriter@lillienews.com.

Event lineup

Roseville Library, 2180 N. Hamline Ave.:

FDR and Black Aspirations
Thursday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m.

The Great Depression and World War II brought hardship, but they also unleashed a wave of renewed demands for justice among black Americans. J.B. Andersen, presenter of an enormously popular lecture series on the Presidency, talks about the ways in which black leaders like A. Philip Randolph used the international crisis to press the case for Civil Rights with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Bearing Witness: The Ballad of Emmett Till
Tuesday, Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m.

In 1955, a 14-year-old boy was brutally murdered in Mississippi for the ‘crime’ of whistling at a white woman.  His death shocked the conscience of a nation and helped ignite the civil rights movement.  The Penumbra Theatre presents scenes from this new play with a Q & A session to follow.

Maplewood Library, 3025 Southlawn Drive:

The Pullman Porters of Saint Paul; Building Community by Writing Black History
Thursday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m.

During the great days of railroading, the Pullman Porters were the well-traveled African-American elite who brought news of the outside world back to their communities. They formed the nation’s first black labor union, and their leader was a titan of the early civil rights movement.  

Daughters of Africa — a Musical Celebration
Sunday, Feb. 16, 2 p.m.

Fueled by the songs of Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah, and many others, the Mixed Blood Theatre presents an exuberant, music-driven celebration of African American women’s triumphs and accomplishments, featuring a striking collection of profiles of the famous and the forgotten.  

Film on Friday
Friday, Feb. 14, 10 a.m.
Outstanding feature films (to be announced) drawn from the many stories of Black History.


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