This story has been updated with reports on additional presentations Friday.
PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The audience here for the State Historical Society annual conference heard straight from the director Friday why the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center has recently closed until some point in 2025.
“The main reason we’re renovating the building,” Ben Jones told the gathering, “is we were running out of space.”
The center, which opened 33 years ago, serves as South Dakota’s main state museum and historical research center and is operated as a branch of the society, which is attached to the state Department of Education. The governor appointed Jones in late 2020 as the society’s ninth director.
He said Friday that a staff member told him at the time that the center had just two or three more years of storage space available. That led to the Legislature last year unanimously passing HB1047, authorizing $12 million of state and other funding for the renovation project.
A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for Tuesday, May 2, at 1:30 p.m. CT. Jones said the work includes catching up on maintenance, improving visitors’ experiences, updating office space and maximizing storage. The high-density shelving that will be added should provide another 20 to 30 years of life at the center, he said.
Among many other changes, digitization work that inmates at the South Dakota Women’s Prison have been performing will be consolidated at the center, and the roof will be re-sodded. The center’s staff moved to the Becker-Hansen building and the Northridge mall for the duration of the project.
Jones said many of the staff will be involved in building the new South Dakota history website for K-12 schools to use. Currently, South Dakota history is taught primarily to fourth-grade students.
Friday morning’s presentations also included talks on South Dakota rodeo luminaries Casey Tibbs and Mattie Goff-Newcombe and South Dakota filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
Kalyn Bergeson, executive director for the Casey Tibbs Foundation South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre, said that Tibbs, who died in 1990, “has been described as the Babe Ruth of rodeo” for winning six PRCA world championships in saddle bronc riding and one in bareback.
Bergeson said Goff-Newcombe, who was the subject of a short PBS film ‘A Real Cowgirl,’ became famous for her trick riding and bequeathed the money that made possible completion of the Fort Pierre rodeo center.
Regarding Micheaux, a Georgia-based professor, Chester Fontenot, said that the Gregory County homesteader became the first independent African-American filmmaker and featured an all-black cast in his 1919 movie “The Homesteader.”
Fontenot speculated that the decision by Micheaux, who was a Pullman train porter at the time, to buy 160 acres in South Dakota in 1905 was shaped by the Blair family’s decision to establish a black homesteading presence in Sully County and by Booker T. Washington’s 1904 commencement speech at University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Fontenot said Washington was advocating at the time for the creation of some all-black states and for some all-black cities.
Micheaux went on to write novels and then made films. “A lot of his success I credit to the lessons he learned in South Dakota and the influence of Booker T. Washington,” Fontenot said. Among the stars who began their careers in Micheaux films were Lorenzo Tucker and Paul Robeson, according to Fontenot.
“Micheaux was this huge figure in black culture,” Fontenot said.
Friday afternoon presentations included a panel discussion on the women’s suffrage movement in South Dakota.
Panelists Liz Almlie, Ruth Page Jones and Kelly Kirk spoke about decades-long efforts by such leaders as Mamie Pyle of Huron, Mabel Rewman of Deadwood and Ruth Hipple of Pierre that ultimately secured women the right to vote, as 63% of South Dakota’s male voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1918.