Freedom's curator

October 15, 2003

SHE KNEW her history. Not just from reading, though Jacqueline Lanier spent untold hours on research as she built her singular Baltimore collection of African-American artifacts and memorabilia. No, Ms. Lanier had been born to hold history in her hands.

Informed early by an understanding that the story of a people could be told through its material culture, Ms. Lanier believed there was as much to learn from slave chains as from manumission papers, from spirituals as from jazz, from sepia photographs of black merchants as from hair-curling irons, from ceramic mammies as from Wedgwood china.

Wedgwood? Visiting an antique show in the Baltimore Convention Center a few years ago, Ms. Lanier came upon a cameo in the stall of a china dealer. It depicted a kneeling slave whose uplifted hands were chained at the wrist. Above him were the words, "Am I not a man and a brother?"

For the next 20 minutes, as she turned the smooth jasperware over and over in her hands, she mesmerized dealers and antiquers with stories about British pottery factory owner Josiah Wedgwood, a member of the Quaker-led Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the late 1780s. The cameos became political fashion statements, worn in the hair or on bracelets by American women who opposed slavery.

Ms. Lanier didn't buy the cameo that day. Already had one, she said, handing it back to the awestruck antique dealer. She kept it among what were then estimated to be 40,000 items displayed and stored throughout a rowhouse that she would generously open to the public for tours.

If today's schoolchildren can hold it in their hands, she once said, they'll believe the history was real. With her unexpected death at age 55, Baltimore has lost the curator and her stories, but her legacy endures in the artifacts she preserved.

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