- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

Once upon a time, historically minded individuals wished the walls could talk. Now, the objects that lived within the walls tell the stories.
On Monday, the Smithsonian Institution's newly renovated Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture reopens with a new exhibit, "Precious Memories: The Collectors' Passion." The display gathers letters, photographs and other artifacts from seven black American collectors from the Washington area. Another exhibit will be "Sculptures by Billy Taylor," featuring work by Mr. Taylor, who has taught at the Corcoran School of Art and Howard University.
For curators and other museum personnel, the "Collectors" exhibit has a lot to say about the expanded role of the institution in preserving and protecting cultural evidence.
"Our goal as an institution is to be the leading advocate for the processes of collecting community and family history," says Steve Newsome, the museum's director. "All of us are collectors. There is something about the human psyche that requires us to hold on to the things that we cherish."
To that end, the Smithsonian has engineered an $8.3 million-dollar renovation of the facility that features state-of-the-art archival storage and reconfigured exhibition space.
What a space it is. Sleek lines characterize the new galleries. One gallery, named for former museum director John Kinnard, will showcase the work of local artists and items from the permanent collection. All areas are accessible to handicapped people and a new foyer and seating can accommodate busloads of schoolchildren.

"Precious Memories: The Collectors' Passion" is the first phase of the museum's mission to have the public to take a more active role in caring for its history.
"Nothing speaks history more than an object," says Robert Hall, director of education and outreach. "And when you've got a collection of objects, well, then, you've got a tale to tell."
Once, these were small things, forgotten and stored away in moldy basements or drafty attics. An old school photograph. A driver's license. Someone's doll. With the passage of time, these old objects have acquired new meaning. The photograph reveals clues about a school long torn down. The driver's license, in someone's crabbed but painstaking script, sheds light on the manners of another time. The doll is the last tangible link to a relative now long dead. Suddenly, the trivial has become treasure.
But "Collector's Passion" is as much the story of the collectors as of the objects themselves.
"They come from a variety of backgrounds, but they are all people who love history and the subject matter they collect," says Portia James, the exhibition's curator and senior historian.
For Carter G. Woodson, who received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1912, collecting the objects and documents related to black history was something of a mission. His section of the exhibit includes an admittance card for the funeral of Frederick Douglass. Poignant too is a letter by Douglass, to a teacher declining her request to speak to her class, written the day before he died in 1895.
The collections of three generations comprise a section devoted to the Franklin family. Buck Colbert Franklin was a newspaperman who wrote an eyewitness account of the Tulsa, Okla., riots in 1921. His typewriter, from which he wrote his much lauded columns for the Omaha Daily Eagle, is here.
His son, John Hope Franklin, became a prominent scholar and historian. The exhibit features his handwritten records collected for his 1943 landmark work, "The Negro in North Carolina." Grandson John Franklin, a director of the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife, has included some of the artifacts that he collected while doing fieldwork.
"It just collapses all the history," says Miss James of a woven basket that John Franklin found in the Bahamas. "You can see African, Seminole and Bahamian influences."
Items from the collection of longtime Shaw resident Henry Whitehead include the opening program of the Lincoln Theatre's 1922 midnight fashion show.
Mr. Whitehead, a staunch advocate of the need to preserve black culture in the Washington area and leader of the drive to save the historic Howard Theatre, died this Jan. 8 without ever seeing his collection exhibited.
"No one can come close to him for preserving the memory of the heyday of U Street," Miss James says. "Everyone talks about the Harlem Renaissance, but D.C. was really the source of a lot of creative energy. These artifacts allow you to see that."
Other noteworthy items in the exhibit include fine art from Washington collector Jerome Gray, a retired police officer who uses his detecting skills to ferret out the truth about unidentified pieces of art. His section of the exhibit includes a bust he attributes to sculptor Augusta Savage.
Artifacts from the collection of Eugene Redd, a Washington-area collector who began by salvaging items that residents in the buildings he worked in wanted to discard, focus primarily on materials related to slavery and the slave trade.
Yet the exhibit also includes a hot comb. For many years Mr. Redd's mother had her own beauty salon, which provided her with a measure of independence at a time when employment opportunities for black women were limited. Without the hot comb, that part of the story might be forgotten.
In much the same way, a scrap of lace from Tina Clarke's family home in Montgomery County tells a far greater story than just exquisite workmanship. Miss Clarke still lives on land that was passed down in the family from enslaved ancestors who together pooled their earnings and bought a plot of land, which they called Jerusalem. In Maryland, it was a common practice for enslaved individuals who were "rented out" to be allowed to keep some extra earnings.
"I think about how much they risked by being slaves and owning land," Miss James says. "There were no guarantees for them."
Baltimore-based Philip J. Merrill, best known for his work on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow," has contributed a number of artifacts from his extensive collection related to two prominent Baltimore families.
"He has all the pieces that tell the stories," Miss James says. "Going to select items for this exhibit was like going on a shopping trip."
Materials related to the Quander family also are part of the exhibit. Quanders could be found throughout the greater Washington area, says Judge Quander, the family historian. Yet until the early 20th century, most didn't know the others existed. Once they got together, they discovered that each branch had a piece of the tale. Now, the family has been able to trace its roots to the Amakwandoh family of Ghana.
"Everybody had the same story of two brothers who had been taken from Africa, then to the Islands and then to Maryland area, where they were separated and never saw each again. When we went to Ghana, we found that people there knew that part of the story."
And the story continues.
Many of the Virginia Quanders can find enslaved ancestors who lived at Mount Vernon, the plantation estate of George Washington. Through a will in the Hall of Records, Maryland Quanders can trace their family history to Henry Quando, who along with his wife, Margaret Pugg, was freed by Charles County farmer Henry Addams in 1684. That makes the Quander family the oldest documented black family in the country.
Roberta Quander, who lives in Alexandria on property that has been in the family since the 1880s, is featured prominently in the exhibit. An even older property, in Woodbridge, is also still in the family. Quander family homes are filled with objects that still "speak," from the doll that belonged to Miss Quander's sister to the 100-year-old fire extinguisher that still sits in her dining room.
Judge Quander's wife, Carmen, an artist, also contributed drawings to the exhibit.
"All of these family histories are the building blocks of American history," Miss James says. "The responsibility we have to preserve and document them looms large."
In addition, the private collections are complemented by artifacts from the Anacostia Museum's own treasure trove. These include the old trunk adorned with paintings about slavery that was donated to the museum in 1994.
"It came from a young woman in Michigan," Miss James says. "She saw it and it spoke to her, but she felt the story was so powerful that she couldn't keep it just for herself. So she called us."
Now, the museum has the room to accept donations like this one. New imaging facilities, including a photo lab, allow fragile photographs to be reproduced for a larger audience. Researchers, whether they are scholars from institutions of higher learning or family members seeking genealogical information, will be able to peruse newspapers and other documents in user- friendly but secure research areas.
Once the exhibit closes, all the "Precious Memories" artifacts will be going back to the collectors. But individuals hoping to donate materials to the museum can now rest assured that the staff will have the resources, and the space, to accommodate them.
Meanwhile, public programs and an online site provide additional access. An ongoing program with students from Anacostia High School allows them to document their neighborhood, while a Summer Academy allows students to conduct oral history interviews with members of area churches.
"When you talk about preserving African-American history and culture you have to talk about education," Mr. Hall says. "But education works both ways. We learn things from the public at the same time that they learn things from us."
It's all about keeping history for everyone.

WHAT: "Precious Memories: The Collectors' Passion"
WHERE: Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, 1901 Fort Place SE
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Feb. 11 through Sept. 30; museum reopens Feb. 11, after two-year renovation
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-2700


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