The Greater Acacia Collection Historical Journey
ACACIA HISTORICAL ARTS INTERNATIONAL INC. sponsors, owns and holds title to two (2) dynamic and outstanding collections of African American material culture, sometimes referred to as objects of everyday-use or applied arts.
These collections have evolved from diverse perspectives of four persons spanning over seven decades making the combined collections unique in America. Despite differences in generations and ethnic heritage, these pioneering collector/educators shared one principle in common: each was attempting to restore a vital, but overlooked portion of American cultural and artifact heritage to the cultural landscape and further they sought to disseminate this knowledge to the public at large. Theirs was an uphill struggle since the accepted, commonly held belief was that African Americans had no past worth mentioning. A group of 20th century scholars would begin to change that point of view. Among the most prominent were the anthropologist Dr. Melville J. Herskovits (Myth of the Negro Past); historian Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. Benjamin Quarles (the negro in The Making of America), Dr. John Hope Franklin and others. These scholars hoped to lay the foundation for what has become at the beginning of the 21st century a virtual seachange in interests and attitudes. Significant other factors were the modern civil rights movement, the rise of African nations, African and African American studies and a greater recognition and appreciation of African art and aesthetic traditions.
THE JOURNEY’S GENESIS
Of the four collector/educators Miriam Belangee Wilson (1878-1959) represents the wellspring. By creating the original collection with high standards of authenticity including the building premises in Charleston, South Carolina, the former Ryan’s Mart which is more commonly known as the Old Slave Mart, Miss Wilson created both a legacy and a unique challenge for what is now ACACIA HISTORICAL ARTS INTERNATIONAL, INC. or the Greater Acacia Collection. Notably, Miss Wilson understood what few, if any of her generation did: the necessity to preserve an essential part of the American experience. When she began collecting slave-made artifacts early in the 1930’s she already realized that the hour was late and that she had best get busy and put her shoulder to the wheel. Miss Wilson did just that. She was living at a time when the last generation of ex-slaves and ex-slaveholders were passing weekly. She clearly saw her mission and attended to it, taking copious notes, photographs and collecting other documentary ephemera. She had rejected the conventional belief that African Americans were an historical people lacking a worthwhile culture. She possessed an open mind and always challenged herself to learn more. She saw the necessity to collect, but just as importantly to share and preserve not only for contemporaries but for generations yet unborn. Miss Wilson set a high bar for those who would follow. She founded the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S. C. not to celebrate slavery, as some have mistakenly misconstrued, but rather to challenge Americans to remove the scales from their eyes and examine what enslaved Africans had created here and brought with them from their native lands, for example, the rice culture, the banjo, inoculation against certain diseases, excellent skill of hand etc.. She tried to make Americans aware that so much of the beauty and comfort they thoughtlessly enjoyed in their environments was provided by people living in their midst, but whom they never really knew or cared to understand. She saw that African Americans as persons from cultures however different from the Euro-American model had validity and had made significant contributions to the broader American culture. Hers was an ongoing mission. Even near the end of her life she was engaged in studying African languages and writing a novel about an African child who was kidnapped by slavers and brought to America.
THE PASSING OF THE COLLECTING CAUSE
With the passing of Miriam Wilson in 1959, Judith Wragg Chase and her sister Louise Alston Graves purchased the Old Slave Mart Museum (OSMM) building and contents in 1960. The old building in need of restoration housed a jumble of valuable artifacts, books, varied files, voluminous field notes, photographs, newspaper clippings and other ephemera collected over thirty years. 1960 was the year that the sit-in, a peaceful nonviolent protest against racial separation, started by African American students was spreading like wildfire across the segregated American South. Mrs. Chase and her husband LTC Richard Chase, a retired career military officer who had fought in the Allied D Day Invasion of Europe, now found time to peacefully work for justice at home. Such activities did not endear the couple to their peers in hidebound Charleston.
Aside from certain structural repairs to the building the most urgent need of the Old Slave Mart Museum and Library was for both of these rare specialized collections to be catalogued and properly housed. These collections could not be inventoried, evaluated and made available to the wider public until this occurred. Fortunately, in 1974 a grant of $45.000 was awarded by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare with a follow up grant of $36,630 for a total of $81,630 used to create a two volume catalogue with over 22,000 entries.
Both Judith and, sister, Louise had studied at the Cooper Union Art School in New York. Judith had become a painter and was recognized as a professional. She, in fact, had taught painting. The sisters added their own dimension to OSMM by offering exhibits to contemporary African American artists. Mrs. Chase’s interest in African art expanded and she collected some of their works. She like her predecessor was very interested in the roots of African American aesthetic, always on the lookout for similarities and connections, if any. She attended The First World Festival on Negro Arts which took place in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. While in Senegal, she traveled around observing and having dialogues with various artists about their techniques and methodologies.
In 1971, Mrs. Chase published her book AFRO-AMERICAN ART & CRAFT (Van Nostrand Press) in an ongoing effort to generate greater understanding and appreciation for the African American contribution to the visual arts and the African roots of their contribution. By 1987 Mrs. Chase, now eighty, and her elder sister were thinking about retiring and the doors to the OSMM were closed as they launched a low key effort to find a suitable and appropriate custodian.
The Old Charleston and Acacia paths cross when in 1968, a young African American, Carroll Greene, visited the OSMM. He was then on a fellowship in museum studies at the Smithsonian Institution. He was absolutely amazed at what he saw in the museum. It was a virtual treasure trove of African American material culture. There were items of furniture, exquisitely woven textiles including fine embroidery and quilts, tools- some crafted out of wood, others welded- toys, unglazed pottery, household utensils, candle molds, building materials such as roofing tiles, wrought ironwork and on and on.
He began to envision a Hall of Everyday Life in the African American Past. Carroll Greene’s “Hall” had three sections. The first section would be an introduction with artifacts created by Africans in freedom in Africa, the second would be the slave era and the third would be for after emancipation. Conversations with Mrs. Chase concerning the future of the collection revealed that nothing had been definitely decided and that when that day came they would give preference to whom ever would agree to maintain the collection in situ, and fulfill the use of her life’s work for furtherance of knowledge and understanding. Greene purchased quite a few items including a selection of Gullah baskets the first (except for a couple of ancient ones) to come to the Smithsonian Division of Cultural History where he then had an office. Carroll Greene agreed to keep in touch with Mrs. Chase which he did from time to time up until hurricane Hugo in 1989. Mrs. Louise Graves, her house plunged in darkness,fell down the stairs severely injuring herself. Her sister took care of her until her death in 1994. Mrs. Chase died in 1995. The city of Charleston acquired the Old Slave Mart building.
Thirty years after his first visit with Mrs. Judith Wragg Chase, Greene, who was a board member of Acacia Historical Arts International Inc., recommended to the board that AHAI acquire the OSMM collection and library. After several visits to the collection in Charleston the board approved and the collection was acquired in 2000 to create the Greater Acacia Collection.
A GREENE PATH TO JOURNEY’S END
Carroll Greene is a founding board member, curator and executive director of collections for Acacia Historical Arts International. He was the pioneer African American in Museum Studies at the Smithsonian Institution in 1968. This was a time when that institution was enthralled with the idea of the neighborhood museums and had recently sponsored the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Administratively Greene was attached to the office of Director-General of Museums, Frank Taylor, and provided with an office and an able assistant in the Division of Cultural History in the Museum of History & Technology (now the Museum of American History.) Carroll Greene met weekly with Silvio Bedini, assistant director of History and Technology. Bedini, a specialist in 18th century mathematical and scientific instruments was then completing the latest edition of his book on the life and work of Benjamin Banneker, America’s first black man of science.
Greene’s meetings with Bedini and Taylor were important, meaningful and valuable at a critical crossroad of historical lamination of America’s racial heritage. The problem was that at the time of the Civil Rights Movement the Smithsonian had only random and incidental material relating to African Americans. There had never been any systematic effort to include material culture relating to African Americans. The Smithsonian library told the whole story with fewer than twenty (20) books on, by and about African Americans on its shelves. For starters Greene recommended several bibliographies beginning with Harvard University. Jack Goodwin, the librarian, to his everlasting credit acted and changed that situation. Greene took an informal survey of the Smithsonian’s holdings of African American artifacts. He also, with permission, queried the curators about exhibits, displays, archives, etc. What a shock when one curator in a question regarding Dr. George Washington Carver and how his contribution was recognized and represented, stated that he had written to Carver’s alma mater and obtained a copy of the transcript of his grades. Greene asked the question “Why is it when it comes to people of color something special has to be concocted?” And these were curators for the most part with the most advanced degrees from the leading colleges and universities in the country. In addition, Greene also checked the Index of American Design. There the pickings were slim with little decorative arts attributed to slave handcraftä.in short, our nation’s attic was almost bare in the case of Americans of African descent.
Imagine Greene’s excitement when only months after coming to the Smithsonian, he visited Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum and met Mrs. Judith Wragg Chase. Despite the name of the museum (the American aversion to the word slavery) Mrs. Chase was displaying the visual arts of contemporary African Americans as well as the works of Africans both historic and contemporary. Greene was impressed that someone over the years cared enough to collect, preserve and interpret this African American treasure. As previously noted Greene purchased a number of items from the Museum Gift Shop which became a part of The Collection of The Cultural History Division of the Smithsonian Institute. Some of the slave recipes were exceptional such as peach leather, whole peaches that had been dried and rolled like bread dough and lightly sprinkled with granulated sugar. Delicious! An 1840’s painting by an ex-slave who gave it to the man who helped him escape to freedom caught Greene’s eye continuing to fuel Greene’s intellectual passion to save African American culture for future generations.
Carroll Greene’s sojourn at the Smithsonian had some bright spots-some helpful friendly colleagues. Since he was called upon to fill various roles while there, his fellowship was extended. He was also a trustee of the Frederick Douglass Institute/Museum of African Art, founded by Warren Robbins and working with Robbins, Greene and Robert Simmons were responsible for the first retrospective exhibit of the work of the expatriat painter Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937).This exhibition was co-sponsored by the Douglass Institute in cooperation with the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art.) Through Greene’s efforts the Smithsonian had its greatest African American attendance ever during the summer of 1969. This exhibition traveled for two years nationally. Greene acquired a collection of African American graphics from Middleton Harris, New York African American Collection and a collection of marine graphics from Gulbrandsen Shipping depicting the British anti-slavery activities off the coast of Africa during the 19th century. Greene also gave illustrated slide lectures about his African American research to students from nearby colleges including George Washington University.
During the ensuing decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Greene continued to privately purchase select African American artifacts to secure these treasures from neglect or destruction which served as the basis of the creation of the Acacia Collection.
The Acacia Collection of African Americana was formally started by Greene in 1989 and fully compliments the Old Slave Mart Museum and Library Collection. Until coming to Savannah, Georgia, Greene had never seen the mother lode of African American artifacts available in Georgia and the Carolinas. Originally he set out to build a collection of artifacts made by African Americans to sustain and enhance their own lives. Insofar as possible he was attempting to tell the story of the African American sojourn through the things they made and used. He called these artifacts remnants from a culture of “making do.” But that became only one theme in a collection with so many diverse things from so many varied backgrounds, for example: the rare collection of nearly twenty whole pieces of colonoware (unfired utilitarian pottery of the 17th & 18th century), an 1859 Afro-American gourd banjo, a one-stringer and other musical instruments, a selection of quilts, basketry, tools, finely crafted Thomas Day furniture or simple gifts that African Americans gave among themselves.
Carroll Greene points out some things he thinks important about material culture descended from African roots. ” Remember,” he says,” that spirituality is at the center of traditional African life and reflected in their material culture. Of course we know that African descended material culture in America is more of a hybrid: African, Native American and European. Even the term African is too broad a term. African covers many ethnic groups, so which ones are we trying to define Yoruba, Kongo, Dan, etc. or what possible combination. A cross in a circle is probably a Kongo cosmogram and not a Christian symbol. The point being, is that these artifacts should be studied with careful eye regarding the symbols of respective cultural groups.” In 1968, when Greene started his museum studies at the Smithsonian, material culture specialists such as Robert Farris Thompson and John Michael Vlach and others had not yet emerged. Not to mention the expansion of African Studies which have come a long way since the late 1960’s . Knowledge continues to increase and as it does the Greater Acacia Collection will reveal secrets that although in plain sight today are as though they were invisible.
Greene’s goal and that of the board of Acacia Historical Arts International is to have the collections available to the largest audience possible as a powerful tool of enlightenment, education and knowledge. A place where access to the collections voluminous archives will spur academic curiosity, research, and the creation of text books and through exhibits of artifacts to tell the true history of the unique ingenuity of Americans of African descent, a people who survived the most brutal of human conditions only to remain resilient contributors to the American way of life. Knowledge and understanding is a means to set us free from all past misunderstanding and create a real “Bridge of Understanding” among all of mankind.