It’s not hard to glean the significance of a picture with Malcolm X or a poster for a Martin Luther King Jr. rally. But decades of African-American treasures are lost because people don’t realize that their story is just as important as a march or sit-in.
“We all had a part in getting here,” says Georgette Mayo, executive director of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. “Everything tells a story, and it’s not just about the ‘notable’ people.”
On May 30, the center partners with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. They’ll be offering professional assessments of heirlooms — making note of their historical significance and providing tools for their preservation.
The Smithsonian has hosted five of these events in larger cities over the past few years. Visits to Charleston and St. Helena Island near Beaufort are the first stops on the second leg of “Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation.” The tour is expected to travel to other historically significant communities.
The program came from a belief that the national museum could do more outside of Washington, says executive director Lonnie Bunch.
“So much of the culture of America, and specifically black America, is in our basements and attics,” says Lonnie Bunch, executive director of the Smithsonian’s African American museum.
The events were expected to draw personal photographs or military uniforms, but it’s also helped with the discovery of true historical treasures — like a full Pullman porter’s outfit from the late 19th century rail company, or rare pins commemorating service in early black-owned businesses.
“Many realize these things had personal significance, but part of our job is to tell them about the historical significance,” Bunch says.
It’s important to note that this isn’t your average antiques roadshow. Curators and historians aren’t expected to assess a monetary value on particular finds, but will instead put each piece in historical context. But what usually seems most important is the personal value.
Bunch recalls one woman holding her father’s uniform and recounting his stories as one of the first black Marines.
“She asked if we wanted it for the museum, and we told her, ‘No, you keep it. That’s keeping your father’s memory alive,'” Bunch says.
The Smithsonian will not only give advice on protecting papers and other souvenirs, but it’ll also offer some tools to help with the preservation, including archival tissue paper, document sleeves, and cotton gloves.
“The most important thing is to make sure your grandkids see it,” Bunch says.
More Than You Know
Because of Charleston’s place in history, the local event could provide unique finds relating to segregation and slavery, Bunch says.
But there’s a host of items that can speak as part of the larger African American story in the Lowcountry, says the Avery Center’s Mayo.
“Even if you don’t think it’s important, it fits a piece of a puzzle in history,” she says.
The Avery Center has been collecting artifacts from the community for years, mostly through private collections donated to the center. And there are many items that hold a value the owner may not even realize.
Items like a doctor’s bag or business cards are part of the center’s collection, but trade items are rare.
“There are businesses that were black-owned that we know about, but there are no remnants of them,” Mayo says.
Newspapers that chronicled the African-American community are also important. The center is always on the hunt for old issues of Charleston community papers like The Mosquito Beach Community Paper and The Southern Reporter. And the stories don’t just come from … well, the stories. Mayo points to an old copy of The Laing Spectator, an East Cooper school rag, that has a list of business sponsors on the back that provide fresh clues to the community at the time.
And, while the center has its fill of old issues of Ebony or Jet, the preservation lessons can teach owners how to preserve these personal treasures.
Pictures also provide clues on the culture and time periods — through hairstyles, clothes, and accessories. Even the type of photo itself may be significant depending on the camera used, including antique photo techniques like tintype and postcard photos.
Charleston and South Carolina still hold a host of mysteries. Much has been documented about Charleston’s hospital workers and their struggles, but historians are still piecing together information about the local tobacco workers union. Another mystery comes from South Carolina’s colored state fair — an annual event that has left few artifacts.
And that’s one of the frustrating things about collecting this history. Pictures and prize ribbons were likely something that was coveted by participants, but disposed of by their descendants.
“Unfortunately, that’s what happens a lot of the time,” Mayo says. “They just pitch it.”
There’s a host of other items that could be of interest. Medals, meeting minutes, or event pamphlets from any number of local unions, fraternities, social clubs, and area churches.
Mayo’s hope is that those people who wouldn’t think of parting with some of these things will at least give historians this chance to take a look at them.
“We hope that the people who don’t want to give up treasures come out so that we at least know what’s in the community,” she says.
After all, our history is sometimes literally written on the artifacts of the past, Mayo says. “If we don’t have it, we’re missing something.”
“Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation” will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sat., May 30, at Burke High School, 244 President St.