The Race to Save Black History: As Art Collections Deteriorate, Preservationists Struggle to Save Our Culture

Article excerpt

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For more than 40 years, Mayme Agnew Clayton, a university librarian in Los Angeles for most of her adult life, collected books, films, letters and other precious items documenting African-American history. The reason, she often would say, was so "children would know that Black people have done great things," remembers her son, Avery.

When she died in October 2006 at age 83, Dr. Clayton appeared to have accomplished her life's goal. She had amassed what many experts believe is one of the nation's top private collections of artifacts and documents dedicated to the African-American past.

But for many years, much of her trove was housed in the garage behind her California bungalow in the middle-class West Adams Historic District of Los Angeles. Water seepage on the garage floor mined a stack of the California Eagle, one of America's first Black newspapers. Silverfish, the wingless inch-long insects with an appetite for glue and paper, had grazed on some of Dr. Clayton's 30,000 first-edition and out-of-print books written by or about Black people.

A reporter from The Washington Post simply described the scene in the overstuffed garage as "photographs, journals, cartoons, correspondence, dusted with ... mold."

African-American preservationists around the country--some academically trained, others ordinary folk trying to do the right thing--are racing to collect and preserve documents and artifacts about Black history and culture.

"White America has been aware that in order to tell your story, you have to preserve your history," says Jacqueline K. Dace, the curator of the African American Collection of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, adding that since the late 1970s, Black America is realizing the same thing at a quickening pace.

Yet Black preservationists often meet with frustration. Budget cuts in 2004 at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, caused the center's administration to lay off its sole archivist. That same year similar budgetary constraints forced Clark Atlanta University to shutter its 64-year-old School of Library And Information Studies.

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This was a "big blow" for the preservation of Black culture because "the majority of archivists now come from library and information programs," says Petrina Jackson, a co-chairwoman of the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable, the part of the Society of American Archivists that advocates the preservation of materials related to minorities.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took a toll on the archives and libraries of historically Black colleges and universities, including the art collection at Southern University of New Orleans.

Water in the first-floor building, where the collection was housed, rose to 5 feet, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. The paper said water "knocked pottery and masks off their shelves and managed to invade Plexiglas display cases." The result: "Intricate patterns carved on a drum were barely visible beneath a film of mold ... Mold had blackened raffia ... from tribal masks ... had eaten away at shackles and chains in a plastic storage chest that was flail to the brim with a thick, viscous, yellow-brown broth."

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Linda M. Hill, the curator and the archivist for the Center for African and African American Studies at Southern, says nearly one-third of the 1,000 pieces of textiles, African wood sculptures and other African and African-American cultural artifacts were unsalvageable.

Sometimes Black history goes up in smoke. In 2006, a fire destroyed Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, a focal point for Black religious and cultural life during the great migration and beyond. Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the father of gospel music, had been Pilgrim's longtime music director. The blaze, which investigators say began accidentally while workmen were renovating the church, destroyed hundreds of historic photographs and a dozen or so cartons filled with Dorsey's original sheet music, according to Jacqueline E. …