- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Supertalented former Washington Wizard — and sometime bad boy — Chris Webber is reintroducing himself to the District. This time, neither hoops nor brushes with the law are part of the game plan.

“I hope people in the District will see a different side of me,” Mr. Webber says during a recent phone interview from his home in Detroit.

The different role: C-Webb (as he’s often called) as historian, collector and educator. Turns out the recently retired NBA star has been collecting black-heritage artifacts for the past 15 years, ever since his early 20s.

We, the people, didn’t know about it because Mr. Webber wasn’t ready to share this passion for history and black heritage while still “grimacing and grunting on the court.”

He was afraid we wouldn’t understand — couldn’t comprehend his two sides: connoisseur of history and superstar basketball player.

“I kept it quiet in the NBA,” he says. “I didn’t think people would take it seriously.”

Part of his collection of artifacts will be shown starting today at the Decatur House on Lafayette Square.

The exhibit, “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square (1795-1965),” features about 30 exhibit items representing various experiences of blacks within the White House neighborhood.

Two of the items belong to Mr. Webber: A photograph of Frederick Douglass circa 1870 and a letter written by Douglass on “United States Marshal Office” stationery.

These items, along with all the other C-Webb artifacts, are meant to inspire people, particularly children.

“When I talk to kids about Frederick Douglass, I say, ‘His story shows us that we can overcome anything,’ ” Mr. Webber says, adding that Douglass was born a slave but rose to become a statesman. “It’s a story of pride and perseverance. It’s in our blood,” Mr. Webber says.

Noting that Douglass artifacts are very scarce, Katherine Malone-France, assistant director at the Decatur House, calls the pieces on loan from Mr. Webber “amazing” and adds, “The whole collection is wonderful.”

The collection, which can be seen online at www.chriswebber.com, features more than 20 pieces spanning the last couple of centuries.

It includes a couple of Martin Luther King artifacts and a postcard from Malcolm X to author Alex Haley, which is one of Mr. Webber’s favorites. It shows a chimpanzee dressed like a human and sitting in a chair.

Wrote Malcolm X: “One hundred years after the Civil War and these chimpanzees get more recognition and respect in America than our people do.”

Says Mr. Webber of the postcard: “I love the postcard from Malcolm X to Alex Haley because it shows his funny side, and what he writes is true.”

Another favorite is Phillis Wheatley’s book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” It’s a first edition from 1773.

“Her story is really inspiring,” Mr. Webber says. “She was the first African-American woman to publish a book, and she was questioned by a panel about her ability to write.”

Apparently, white men at the time strongly doubted the passages belonged to her.

While the money from the NBA enabled Mr. Webber to collect the artifacts, his interest in history, particularly black history, started when he attended Detroit Country Day School, a private school he got into “because of basketball and my mother,” who he says made him work hard.

Here, as a teen, he came in contact with other ethnic and cultural traditions. Seeing them, he started appreciating his own.

“You know how it is at that age,” he says. “You take what your parents say and do for granted. But when your friends do it, it means a lot more.”

Now, like his Jewish and Indian friends at the private school did for him, he wants to inspire children, particularly in the inner city, to learn about and appreciate their own history and those who came before them.

“Children are my mission,” he says.

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