Preserving Black History, Americans Care For National Treasures At Home The relics of African-American families help tell the story of America, the Smithsonian says. Museum experts are traveling the country to help identify and care for items of cultural significance.
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Preserving Black History, Americans Care For National Treasures At Home

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Preserving Black History, Americans Care For National Treasures At Home

Preserving Black History, Americans Care For National Treasures At Home

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Ever wonder what to do with grandma's hand-stitched quilt or your father's fading photo albums? Well, experts from the Smithsonian say your family's relics can help tell the story of America. And to tell the African-American part of that story, they are hosting workshops around the country helping lay people identify and protect items of cultural significance. NPR's Debbie Elliott caught a recent session at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got some textiles.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: A gallery is arranged "Antiques Roadshow" style - tables draped with black linen and experts on hand grouped by medium - textiles, paper, photos. They're ready to take a closer look at the family keepsakes Birmingham residents are bringing in.

NORA BELL: This is the house that I was born in. And that's the midwife, and there I am.

ELLIOTT: Nora Bell sits at a table flipping through a photo album - the kind with sticky pages that hold the black-and-white images in place. That won't do, says Ann Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

ANN SHUMARD: Unfortunately, the sticky backing here is already dried out and gone, so the photographs haven't glued themselves down. So we're talking about using some archival sleeves and slipping the photographs into new housings.

ELLIOTT: More importantly, Nora Bell needs to write down the stories behind the photographs, says Rex Ellis with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

REX ELLIS: Your story and your memories are the legacy of your family.

ELLIOTT: Ellis says Bell's story is one of growing up on the cusp of change. Her father was a deacon at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church where four black girls were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb in 1963. She and her sisters were among the first black students to integrate an all-white Birmingham high school.

BELL: Yes, yes and it was very, very hard. All I remember is every day somebody throwing something at me or chasing me or - yeah, that sort of thing.

ELLIS: I love to hear the stories behind what they bring.

ELLIOTT: Rex Ellis has helped coordinate 15 sessions like this around the country, from Topeka, Kansas to Indianola, Mississippi. He says it's about making ordinary people collectors of the nation's heritage.

ELLIS: The back story is part of a larger story about not just African-American history but American history - getting them to understand how important it is for them to preserve and store and take care of these items...

ELLIOTT: Some of these artifacts could be part of the collection at the African-American Museum now under construction in Washington DC. In Birmingham, there were lots of family photographs, newspaper clippings and some pottery. Someone even brought in what's believed to be the personal scrapbook of Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Nora Bell had her photo album and a century-old quilt.

BELL: From my father's grandmother to my mother and then to me. Everything was hand-stitched.

ELLIOTT: Renee Anderson, the head of collections for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, finds a unique repeating pattern in the quilt's plaid squares.

RENEE ANDERSON: You see what we were talking about? - the flower basket - looking at this as the basket...


ANDERSON: ...And then these as the leaves here.


ANDERSON: It's very exciting.

ELLIOTT: Anderson also sees an unusual stitching pattern that she thinks could be indicative of this region. She promises to do some research and get back to Bell. Nearby, Neonta Williams has a zip-loc bag of letter words dating back to 1901, including love letters.

NEONTA WILLIAMS: So my great-great grandmother wrote in this letter to my great-great grandfather that the love she had for him was strong enough to break a lion's neck.

ELLIOTT: The other letters tell the story of how her ancestors fared when slavery ended.

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. I've learned so much. I mean, I've learned - and not just me, but my entire family - we've learned, you know, that we had a school. We had a church. This has all just been empowering for me to be able to speak back to my family about who we are.

ELLIOTT: She's leaving with protective polyester sleeves and acid-free buffer paper so the letters can be an inspiration for her great-great-grandchildren. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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