What A Lifetime Of Collecting Millions Of Relics Of Black Americana Looks Like
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We're about to meet a man who's been collecting black Americana for most of his life. And he wants to share it with others. The items he's amassed actually used to be in a museum he ran in LA's Crenshaw neighborhood. Now they're all housed on his property, which is the next stop in our summer road trip collaboration with Atlas Obscura co-founder Dylan Thuras.
DYLAN THURAS, BYLINE: I'm in the California desert about two hours north of LA. It's a barren landscape of power lines and solar farms. Directly in front of me...
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
THURAS: ...Is a shipping container.
ORAN Z: These are called high cubes 'cause they're 9 foot high and they're 45 foot long.
THURAS: We're in Oran Z's backyard, and he's struggling to get the container open.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)
ORAN Z: I love it. You know, this is my stuff. So in the back we've got jukeboxes, the first lady.
THURAS: It's a wax Michelle Obama...
ORAN Z: There's Michelle.
THURAS: ...Wrapped in bubble wrap. They're just some of the remnants from Oran Z's Pan-African Black Facts & Wax Museum. That's facts as in a piece of information and wax as in a wax Michelle Obama or a wax Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods. You get the idea.
ORAN Z: Like this artifact.
THURAS: There are African masks, furniture.
ORAN Z: Hey, here's a "Dreamgirls" poster, autographed.
THURAS: It's piled to the top with stuff. And this shipping container, it's just 1 of 9.
ORAN Z: The very last container there has got most of the albums, probably a hundred black mannequins in that one. And this one here is more art, but it's not as organized as this. But it's somewhat organized.
THURAS: And then Oran Z leads me into his house.
His living room is filled floor to ceiling. There are postcards, cereal boxes, instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THURAS: Looking at all of it, I ask Oran Z how many objects he thought he had.
ORAN Z: Over 3 million.
THURAS: Three million objects, most of them baking in the desert sun. Oran is 67 now, but this all started when he was in his mid-20s living in Omaha, Neb. And it started with one very special object. It was a book about the life of self-made black millionaire Madam C.J. Walker.
ORAN Z: She became my imaginary mother.
THURAS: Oran read about how Walker made her fortune in the early 1900s creating hair care and beauty products for the black community. Her story set Oran on the two major paths of his life - one, to collect objects that showcased black achievement and, two, to make his own fortune in black haircare. He did it in the early 1980s by creating a new product for bonding hair extensions.
ORAN Z: I could go in with my bonding lotion and get it to stick. With just twisting it on, it would go. At that time it was revolutionary.
THURAS: It was the start of Oran's hair empire. And the money it brought in - Oran poured it into collecting.
ORAN Z: I started collecting anything and everything for blacks, against blacks, by blacks.
THURAS: It meant collecting objects that represented the history of American racism - Sambo figures and Mammy cookie jars.
ORAN Z: The first thing that I actually remember that I said, OK, this is going to make me start collecting was a calendar. And on this calendar was this picture of this little baby drinking out of an ink bottle. And the caption was the N-word milk. It was funny. And then I started crying.
THURAS: Oran wanted visitors to his former museum to have that same experience, to reckon with these racist objects. But he also wanted to show kids in the neighborhood black success stories.
ORAN Z: They'd be, like, rapping about kicking somebody, beating their woman, selling some drugs. And they would leave the museum talking about, we're going to write about Harriet Tubman; we're going to write about Madame C.J. Walker.
THURAS: He displayed the patents of black inventors, stamps featuring black Americans. The museum was a community hub. They threw parties. They even had a small radio station. So what happened? As Oran tells it, one by one the businesses in the area closed down, driven out in part by a three-decade-long redevelopment project known as Marlton Square.
ORAN Z: At one time that Crenshaw Corner, that used to be the hub of black business. It's almost like a destruction of the culture.
THURAS: In 2012, Oran packed up the museum and moved to the desert. Since then he's been looking to find a permanent home for the collection. He's even willing to give parts of the collection away to the right institutions. The need is more urgent than ever.
ORAN Z: I have got stage 4 prostate cancer, and I've had it for 11 years. And how - why am I still alive? So this is one of the reason why I'm trying - I'm hoping that somebody starts to take interest in some of this stuff.
THURAS: I spent six hours with Oran Z. Every object he showed me came with a story.
ORAN Z: We got to do better. We got to preserve the whole story. And if you can't see it, it don't exist.
THURAS: He hopes the desert air will preserve the collection until more people can see it. For NPR News, I'm Dylan Thuras in Del Sur, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT'S "MAKE ME A PALLET ON YOUR FLOOR")
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