- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ATLANTA | Like many black Americans before him, Marvin Greer figured slavery and migration had hopelessly scattered the heirlooms of his family’s past. Now he has found some of them, but he’s not sure how to keep them intact.

The 23-year-old history buff looked on anxiously recently as a Smithsonian Institution worker cataloged and inspected his personal trove of portraits and military discharge papers, part of a museum-led push to help families like his save their history.

Mr. Greer is one of an unknown number of blacks who are digging into attics and garages to find the rest of their history captured in letters, portraits, beloved dolls and other long-forgotten heirlooms.

Historians are trying to help: Smithsonian officials hope the Save Our African-American Treasures series also will turn up items for a National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open on the Mall by 2015.

The Atlanta stop last month was the sixth in the cross-country history-gathering trek, which has included events in Chicago, Los Angeles and parts of South Carolina.

“There is a continuing, growing appreciation that the history of black America is a history that deserves to be preserved,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s planned museum and organizer of the museum’s innovative Treasures series.

He estimates the series has documented and helped families preserve hundreds of items, among them a rare Pullman porter’s cap and agricultural tools believed to have been used on a rice plantation.

Experts say more families are seeking ways to preserve items once thought to be junk, spurred by increased emphasis on black Americana and its role in painting a fuller picture of the nation’s past.

In Atlanta, some came seeking tips for preserving everything from the modern — a beloved Michael Jackson album — to the ancient, including a massive chronicle of slavery’s history dating back to 1859. It likely belonged to a Quaker, according to museum officials.

Amelia Boynton-Robinson, 99, knew the background of the four-legged wooden sewing kit she toted from Tuskegee, Ala.: It was a gift from the wife of Tuskegee University founder Booker T. Washington and crafted by students around 1900.

“At that time, dressmakers were very important and very popular because you didn’t have factories,” Mrs. Boynton-Robinson explained to a museum worker as she learned that despite a missing hinge, the rustic box only needed some dusting and cleaning to keep it sturdy for years to come.

Mr. Greer was sent away with tips on investing in acid-free storage boxes and heavy plastic covers. “Anything that’s on your hands [then] on the document will cause further deterioration,” said Alice Carver Kubik, a professional reviewer under contract to Treasures.

None of the Atlanta collectors struck it rich, learning great-grandmother’s dogeared photos or a handful of old coins were worth millions. But experts say monetary value is secondary among black families with a growing interest in how their ancestors lived.

They point to the influence of Alex Haley, whose 1976 book, “Roots,” detailed his own painstaking effort to trace his family back to Africa and encouraged blacks to begin digging into family history many had assumed was lost forever and to programs like the popular public-broadcasting series “Antiques Roadshow.”

It’s tough to quantify exactly how many black Americans are researching historic documents or digging up old family belongings to map their past.

But the Internet, with its ever-expanding library of historic records, is the latest thing driving interest, according to Sharon Leslie Morgan, author and operator of Ourblackancestry.com.

Since its March 2007 launch, the Web site, which offers tips on beginning family research, has gone from less than 100 to almost 3,000 unique site visits per month.

“Genealogy is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, which is probably why a lot of people never really get into it. However, modern technology has made research so much easier,” she said. “There are so many more records available to African-American researchers that didn’t use to be accessible at all.”

For Lynn Brown, discovering heirlooms has helped make real the things she has found on such sites as Ancestry.com.

She spent seven years rooting around on the Web site and eventually looking in the Atlanta archives for details about her family. But it wasn’t until one day, in the North Carolina home of a long lost cousin, she found the most valuable pieces of her family’s puzzle: pages of a handwritten family tree and pictures of her relatives dating back to 1880.

She thinks many blacks have tossed items from their past. “They think it’s not worth anything because, for a long time, it was not,” she said.

But for her, having links to her family’s past that she can hold in her hands is invaluable.

“I can just feel and see my ancestors,” she said, smiling.



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