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Road show preserves African-American history

The  Smithsonian has begun a series of hands-on programs across the U.S. that focuses on preserving the culture and heritage of African Americans.
African American Treasures
Mary Ballard, a senior textile conservator from the Smithsonian Museum Conservations Institute, on Saturday examines a 1930s Pullman railroad porter hat that belonged to the father of a friend of Patricia Heaston. Experts examined items at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago.Brian Kersey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Evelyn Johnson's father has never liked talking about his time in the Army during World War II. He was angry that black servicemen like him fought for freedom overseas only to come home to face discrimination, she says.

Johnson, however, now has a window into her father's experiences, having recently inherited about 30 letters he wrote his mother while stationed in North Africa and Italy.

On Saturday, Johnson learned how to best preserve the box full of letters — written in pencil, still folded in their original envelopes — at an event organized by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Held in collaboration with the Chicago Public Library, the daylong event featured classes where attendees could learn how to safely handle and preserve photos, clothing, textiles, collectibles, books and paper items.

The program was the first in a Smithsonian series called "Save Our African American Treasures." Similar events are planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Attendees also were able to meet one-on-one with conservation experts, similar to the PBS show "Antiques Roadshow." However, the emphasis was not on financial worth, but cultural and historical significance.

Gloves and tissue paper
Wearing cotton gloves, the conservation experts dispensed advice on preserving more than 100 items.

Some of the items included a cap worn by a sleeping-car porter working for the Pullman Co. and a gold-colored pin given to a top saleswoman by Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur who built a fortune by developing and marketing hair care and beauty products to African-American women in the early 1900s.

"Some people say you can never be too rich or too thin. I say you can never have too much tissue paper," Mary Ballard, a senior Smithsonian textiles conservator, said as she stuffed acid-free paper into the Pullman cap.

Lonnie Bunch III, the museum's founding director, said he came up with the idea for the event while thinking about how the museum will build its collection. The museum, created by an act of Congress in 2003, is to be built on a site on the National Mall in Washington, with construction expected to be completed in 2015.

"I began to think about, 'How do we identify that wonderful history that's still in people's homes?' As I thought about that, I realized that the history that's there — Grandma's quilt and Aunt Sarah's shawl — is also at risk," he said.

About preservation, not collection
"It's the kind of thing that earlier generations treasured, but as families move around, I thought we better do this, not in terms of what we collect, but what we can preserve," Bunch said.

Bunch said some items examined during the "African American Treasures" events might eventually get into the museum's collection. He would particularly love to find a uniform worn by a soldier during the early period of World War I, or signage related to segregation.

But he also wants people with historical items — if no one in the family is interested in caring for them — to consider donating them to local libraries, museums and institutions where they could become part of a research collection.

"This is a process that is really about helping people to remember, trying to get people to realize that their story is history," Bunch said.

Johnson said her father, now in his 80s, has gotten more open to talking about the war as he's gotten older, and he was fine with her bringing the letters to Saturday's event. They were among her grandmother's possessions, which relatives have been slowly sifting through since her death several years ago.

The experts told Johnson the letters would be better off flat, instead of folded, kept out of the light and stored in a place that's cool and relatively dry, without fluctuating temperatures.

"Basements and attics are the worst enemies of papers and books," Lesa Dowd, a conservator for the Chicago Public Library, told the 59-year-old store owner from Chicago.

Johnson said she'll be taking their recommendations seriously.

"We think if we just store it in a corner somewhere, it will be OK. But in fact, that's not the case," Johnson said. "We really need to actively find ways to preserve these things so we can hand them down to the next generation."