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Sioux Falls Museum Elevates Stories Behind SD's Black History


Wednesday, February 17, 2021   

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - South Dakota might not come up as often as other states when learning about Black History Month. But a museum in Sioux Falls is full of information the public may not be aware of.

The South Dakota African-American History Museum has been around since 2008 and now is located in Sioux Falls' Washington Pavilion. Museum founder Porter Williams said the move created greater exposure to share information about figures such as York, an enslaved laborer on the Lewis and Clark expedition who was the first known Black person to set foot in the state. Williams said these details can open the door to conversations.

"America does not want to be reminded of slavery," he said, "and from that experience right there, I thought there's a lot of history being lost because people don't want to talk about slavery. "

Williams also sculpted a Martin Luther King Jr. statue in honor of the civil-rights icon's visit to Sioux Falls in 1961. The museum attracts nearly 400,000 visitors a year, but Williams said South Dakota's Black history needs greater reach in a largely white region. He has called for comprehensive academic studies to help generate more interest.

Zach Van Harris Jr., who serves on the museum's board as a student researcher and curator, said he has seen some positive movement with the Legislature formally recognizing the museum's efforts, and community donations that have created scholarship opportunities. He said he hopes the movement doesn't stop there.

"We are here, we have been here," he said, "and we just need to continue to document and preserve the truth, the history."

He said he sees the museum serving as a destination for public tours and a location for panel discussions on issues of race and history in the state. It recently added a George Floyd exhibit that features paintings from the museum's first scholarship recipient.

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