Black American History Emerges From Racial Artifacts

March 03, 1991|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Staff writer

In a Columbia basement sits the makings of a collection, as controversial as it is historical, that shows racial pride as well as pain.

"Mammy" figurines and exaggerated images of wide-mouthed black children on tie racks and silverware -- memorabilia that would cause someto gnash their teeth in outrage -- are what a Columbia woman lovingly keeps in a growing collection of black Americana.

"People should look at it and find out what has happened in the past," said Wylene Burch, 55, founder of the Howard County Center of African-American Culture. "These are stereotypes of African-Americans,exaggerated Negroid features, but now it's history. And we need to teach it."

The Laurel elementary school teacher intends to preserveand exhibit literature, clothing, coins, photographs -- even negative memorabilia -- to educate the community.

"Negative images represent how African-Americans were conceived in the minds of people who thought of them as less than a progressive and growing race," said Burch, quoting Malinder Saunders, a black collector in Washington. "We should never erase the negative images from our minds. They should be kept before us so that those things will not repeat themselves."

Black Americana, such as an ashtray showing a man shooting dice and derogatory advertising packaging, is becoming quite collectible.

Doris Ligon, executive director of the Maryland Museum of African Art inColumbia, has mixed emotions on the negative displays: "It's received with more reservation than open arms. It's heart-wrenching. It's not just the image, but what it was supposed to do. It can't help but hurt because it was designed to hurt."

Ligon cautions that when such items are shown to children, the history and psychology of the times must be explained.

Yet Burch finds that people who see her collection have become increasingly receptive to the offensive pieces. "Inthe past, people got angry, but now they don't mind," said Burch. "They know what was said derogatorily was not true."

Burch hopes theHoward center, which she began in 1987, will have a library and museum to permanently house the artifacts that trace Howard County's black history. There will also be rooms of negative and positive memorabilia, a cultural room for story hours, and a speakers' bureau.

A New Orleans native, Burch and husband Olger, a retired military officer, said her collection began more than 20 years ago when she made projects with her two children for school to teach them about their heritage. She brought the fledgling collection to her own classes in Prince George's County, where she has been teaching for 16 years.

"The material started to wear. I said in order for me to preserve the materials, we should all organize a center in the community."

That is when she sought out Howard's black community leaders for help.

"She approached us in 1987 and set up a board of directors," said MorrisL. Woodson, 76, of Columbia, a member of the board and a retired director of elementary education in Howard County.

"She held her first reception at Howard Community College a year later. She put on display all of the collection she had and announcedour objectives," he said.

Since then, the collection has tripled. One antique dealer inHoward County donated books and artifacts, and Deeds book store donated books. "We are always seeking, and we appreciate items that are donated or loaned to the group," said Burch.

Burch and Woodson insist the center is not for blacks alone. "I don't believe we ought to separate it, black or white," said Woodson. "Everyone should know about the contributions blacks made. After all, we're all Americans."

While some of the 20 board members store several of the books and artifacts, most of the collection is on display in Burch's home.

Her basement brims with photos of prominent black Howard County residents, including its first black judge and state trooper. A rest room sign, circa 1920, with arrows directing whites to one area and blacks to another, sits beside a top hat that belonged to the proprietor of thecounty's first black funeral parlor.

The collection boasts more than 2,000 books, some of which date to 1850. Ranging in topics from black history to black contributions in the arts, science and literature, several of the books are neatly arranged beside Life magazine cover photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cab Calloway starring in "Hello Dolly," and The Jackson Five.

Burch arranges traveling displays for schools and community events. Last month, a stamp exhibit of black Americans was displayed at the Howard County Public Library andCentennial High School in honor of Black History Month.

The center also sends speakers, including Woodson's wife Mildred, to lecture at schools.

Burch hopes to have "different exhibits going on all the time. I want people to see what we have. Hopefully, they'll be interested in sharing space with us," she said.

The board has been trying to locate a temporary facility to house the collection until the center can afford a permanent structure.

"We went to different corporations and offices from (County Executive Charles) Ecker's office on down asking for a place," said Woodson. "They're excited, but theydon't have the room. We spoke to (School Superintendent Michael) Hickey, the libraries and to the Rouse Co. But we're going to keep on trying."

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