Basketball's Chris Webber Gives a Clinic - in African-American Lore

Article excerpt

Veteran pro-basketball star Chris Webber has more than fast breaks and slam-dunks on his mind these days: He wants African- American history to come alive for youths. To do that, he's become a serious collector of African-American artifacts and documents dating back to the 1700s.

The prized items in The Chris Webber Collection of African- American Artifacts and Documents include the first book written by an African-American in America, and the second by an American woman. The collection also contains a program autographed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., letters written by scientist George Washington Carver and educator Booker T. Washington, and an early-1800s accounting ledger from Virginia documenting the buying and selling of slaves.

Mr. Webber is currently sharing his collection at an exhibit at the Central Library in Sacramento, Calif. One of his favorite pieces, he says, is a postcard sent from civil rights activist Malcolm X to Alex Haley, the historian and author of the bestselling book "Roots."

"[Malcolm X] is coming back from Mecca, and this postcard has a monkey on the front of it, and he makes a joke about how it's funny that in some places the monkey gets more respect than the black man," Webber says. "Today one would probably use e-mail, but for a personal postcard to be able to have that kind of personal message makes it very special for me."

The earliest piece Webber owns is a first edition, printed in London, of Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" (1773).

"Wheatley had to go before [Founding Father] John Hancock and recite parts of paragraphs in order to prove that a woman could actually do these things," Webber says.

It's a rare object. Very few items connected with Wheatley, who died in poverty, still exist, says Michelle LeBlanc, education director of Boston's Old South Meeting House, where Wheatley attended church. Aside from the book, she says, "There's a desk owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society."

Webber, who was born in Detroit to a schoolteacher mother and a father who was a longtime employee at the local Ford Motor Co. plant, says his interest in African-American history was ignited while he was attending a college prep school. He became friends with students from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. One thing that stood out to him was how they all honored their traditions and cultures. "So I just became interested in history - specifically, American and African-American history," he says. …