Connie Bishop came to Harold Washington Library Saturday hoping to find help in deciphering a folder filled with historical papers she’s had for some time.
Bishop sat down with Michael Flug, senior archivist for Carter G. Woodson Library on South Side, and one of several experts at Save our African-American Treasures, an event hosted by Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago.
A self-described history buff, Bishop said she saved the papers from certain destruction. During a visit she made to Bronzeville five years ago, Bishop met an elderly man she described as an “old cuss” who used vulgar language.
He lived in a home on the 3600 Block of King Drive, once owned by Dr. Roger Williams, one of Bronzeville’s most prominent African-American doctors during the neighborhood’s golden age. He told Bishop he was going to throw away the papers stored in the home. Bishop decided to save them.
Bishop was among the dozens of Chicago residents who braved Saturday’s frigid temperatures to attend the Washington Library event, which allowed individuals and families to bring heirlooms, mementos and other “family treasures” for professional archivists to review.
Bishop and Flug riffled through her papers. There were $100 certificates issued by Douglass National Bank of Chicago, one of the first black-owned banks in the United States, and stock documents from an Arkansas-based oil exploration company. They also found Dr. Williams’s financial papers.
Bishop and Flug then turned to a frayed pamphlet from the Supreme Royal Circle of Friends, a “modern and progressive” fraternal organization founded in 1909 and headed by Williams. The pamphlet advertised “Millions Paid Out” in burial services, and published photographs of the organization’s leaders from several cities. Flug was impressed.
“Royal Circle was an important black organization,” Flug told Bishop as he examined the document. “They published their own newspaper, but I’ve never seen an internal brochure,. It might not have monetary value but it does have historical value, showing Dr. Williams’s role in this.”
Bishop later said she was pleased to learn more about the documents she saved.
“One of the things that’s very difficult is to find biographical material on Dr. Williams. This is putting the pieces together on that,” she said.
Such a discovery is what the organizers of Saturday’s event had in mind.
Chicago Public Library and the Smithsonian Institute’s new African-American Museum of History and Culture organized the program, which featured the one-on-one consultations.
The morning-to-afternoon event also included seminars on protecting historical items.
Eleven staff members from the African-American museum and other Smithsonian institutions came to Chicago for the event. Similar sessions are being organized in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Saturday’s event also coincided with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Monday.
The organizers encouraged participants to dig into their old trunks, dusty attics and safe-deposit boxes to share photographs, quilts, hats, jewelry and other items – and the stories attached to them.
“So much of the African-American past is still sitting in trunks, basements and attics,” said Lonnie Bunch, executive director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a former head of the Chicago Historical Society.
According to organizers, two of the top finds Saturday were a white Pullman Porter cap and a medal featuring C.J. Walker, the African-American beauty products entrepreneur.
Saturday’s program, Bunch explained later, was designed to “stimulate a conversation” about historical items. Bunch said he feared much of what he called “the cultural patrimony of the African-American community” would be lost over the next decade.
Even the most pedestrian items could have historical worth, Bunch said.
He mentioned a simple pair of shoes on display at the National Museum of American History. A civil right marcher wore the heels of the shoes down to nubs while attending countless demonstrations. Bunch said the shoes spoke volumes about commitment and sacrifice of the movement.
“This is about saying something has value if you value it, not just because it has monetary value,” added Michele Moresi, curator of collections at the museum.
In fact, Saturday’s discovery workshop with people like Bishop was designed to offer historical, but not financial evaluations.
A steady stream of people came to have items examined. Event organizers divided them into paper/books, photographs and collectibles tables.
At the collectibles table, Barbara Hall, from the Art Institute of Chicago’s conservation department, and Don Williams from the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, discussed protecting old jewelry with Lee Wyatt, a resident of Chatham, who brought in a gold-colored bracelet with a lion’s face decorating one side.
“You might want to take it to an estate jeweler, and ask them to clean it,” Hall advised.
Wyatt’s bracelet had a stone of undetermined value sparkling in the lion’s mouth. Hall and Williams examined the bracelet from different angles, aided by tiny flashlights, magnifying glasses and magnification goggles.
Wyatt’s Aunt Bertha, a woman Wyatt described as a classy-type lady, striking and attractive, originally owned the bracelet. Bertha, who worked in cotton fields in Mississippi, gave the jewelry to her sister before she died, and Wyatt’s mother has since passed it on to her.
Wearing magnifying goggles, Hall and Williams noticed a faint inscription on the inside of the claps reading “S & B.L.”
Wyatt had never noticed the full inscription before. She said it might help her find out more information about the bracelet. Her plan was to search the U.S. Patent office for S & B.L. to see if any manufacturers had patents out on the bracelet.
“We’ll go on the Internet and try to piece it together,” Wyatt said.