Hamline News

History Major Creates Space for Black Minnesotans' Stories


JoJo (Jokeda) Bell ’07 majored in Spanish and history at Hamline University. After completing her graduate studies, Bell returned to Minnesota to fill a gap in what is known about Black American history by founding the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM).

What about your experience at Hamline stays with you today?
Mentorship from my time at Hamline stands out and has stayed with me. I found support from a
few fellow students and a few professors. That continued support, especially from Professor Barbara Younosza (now retired) in the Modern Languages and Literatures program and Professor Katherine Bjork in the History program, has been a boon to me while navigating post-college life, especially during graduate school and my role as the founder and Director of Exhibits and Programming at the AAICM.

How did you come to found the AAICM?
I was doing independent historical research and writing when I realized that most of the Black
American history taught and discussed related to national themes—usually related to the West
Coast, East Coast and the South. But I knew that Minnesota has deep and rich Black historical
roots of its own. I wasn’t seeing these stories told on a scale that would invite everyone to learn
about this important, shared state history. I felt creating an organization like AAICM could help
fill the void.

How does the AAICM operate?

The AAICM does not have a physical space, which has allowed us to be flexible in a way that larger museums cannot. Our exhibitions and programs can rotate in and out of areas that are specific to the people and places featured in our work. We can also reach multiracial patrons by hosting exhibitions in larger museums. One obstacle that comes with this flexibility is ensuring that people are familiar with our work. People tend to see our exhibitions in larger organizations’ spaces and assume that that institution is the main director/curator of what we present.

What led or inspired the newest project titled "Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and
Suburban Minnesota"?

Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota is based on the eponymous oral history project produced by AAICM. The oral history project aims to bring the lives of Black Minnesotans who call rural or suburban Minnesota into focus. Personally, having grown up in Hopkins, I knew that few—Black or white—people understood the complexities of growing up outside of the Cities here. So, my interview partner, and AAICM board member, Jeremiah Ellis and I found narrators willing to help create a bedrock of rural and suburban stories to add to our digital archives. That, in turn, led to the exhibition which is open at the Minnesota Museum of American Art through June 20, 2021.

Given the AAICM’s focus on the Black experience in Minnesota, how has COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, and the wider conversations regarding the inequities Blacks in Minnesota face impacted the organization?
When atrocities hit the Black community they are often spoken about as separate issues. I feel
our work, although focused on issues specific to Black Minnesotans, helps to put our history in
the context of Minnesotan history. Our exhibition “The Builders: Shaping Minnesota’s
Architectural Landscape on the Color Line” is an example of that work. We have to continue to
explore Black Minnesota history so our communities aren’t seen as separate or apart from other
Minnesotans. That work will be critically important if we are going to move toward seeing Black
residents as more than “others.” I hope sharing that aspect of our history can help us address
inequalities related to the Black community in Minnesota.

Information about the exhibit

Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota is on exhibit until June 20, 2021 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, 350 Robert Street in downtown St. Paul.

The Museum will also host an Art Kit Pick-Up on May 16, 2021 from 1-3:00 p.m. Participants can visit the entrance at 350 Robert Street in downtown St. Paul and pick up a free, all-ages art kit related to the exhibition.

Photo credit: Genét Jean-Pierre.

Written by staff.

Removed past event and corrected Minnesota Museum of Art to Minnesota Museum of American Art on 4/6/21.