Buried treasures abound in Brooklyn. Anthony Cochran brought in an 1863 original edition of Harper’s Weekly Magazine that he inherited from his maternal uncle. Anthony, an author and family historian, was among dozens of participants at the Smithsonian Museum’s “Save Our African American Treasures” event held recently at the Brooklyn Museum. The examiner quickly opened his bound volume to the cover page of July 4th, 1863, to exam the stories and images. “Harper’s was the most famous of the news media during the Civil War. This page is a favorite among Civil War collectors. They would cut out the images, delete the text, and make post cards to sell,” said the examiner.
Anthony gave the ‘buried treasures’ event high marks: “The Smithsonian Museum did a great deed by proactively looking for our history and teaching about preservation. The representative who evaluated my publication was knowledgeable and also genuinely passionate about the work she was doing. I found all the staff members extremely warm, sincere and enthusiastic.”
The Fourth of July edition of Anthony’s Harper’s newspaper featured a story entitled: “A Typical Negro.” We all have seen the image, but not the story of this courageous formerly enslaved man called “Gordon.” His back is scared, blistered, and exposed. The museum examiner explained that Gordon was actually enlisting for military duty at a Baton Rouge Union post after escaping twice from a brutal Mississippi slave plantation and serving as a Unionist guide. His bravery is described in the published Harper’s account. She said the vivid images told several American stories: of slavery, the Civil War and about media – especially graphics, photography and print media. She explained that newspaper images were actual woodcut drawings created by a skilled artist. Photographs could not be printed in newspapers yet. The army officers were so outraged by Gordon’s injuries that they documented three images of him: ragged and barefoot when he entered their lines; at the military medical exam; and in full uniform as a soldier in the Union forces. Anthony’s rare newspaper editions were measured and preserved in a custom-made box. He said he would pass it down to a family member rather than donate or sell his treasure.
Brooklyn Museum’s lobby bustled with over twenty-five Smithsonian Museum professionals standing by to examine items at numerous examination tables. “Buried Treasure” participants brought in all kinds of items: an ancient wedding dress, Bibles, photographs, books, artwork, quilts and more.
Valerie Faulk, a caretaker for a forgotten Tuskegee Airman, brought in his aviator’s goggles, medals, certificates and military cap. She said that she had cared for the unsung hero for over five years until he recently died. She said when she heard about the museum’s event. She was excited. The Airman’s family told her to discard his things. But she could not part with them. The staff showed tender loving care as they listened and examined her treasures. She had everything wrapped in plastic. A team properly re-wrapped the items in acid-free paper and placed them in custom-made boxes. She expressed gratitude. But said she wanted to gift the items to the museum for posterity. Regretfully, they could not accept her offer.
Jean-Marie Bain from Grenada, West Indies, brought in her father’s shoeshine box, his banjo and an exquisite photograph of him. The photo was autographed by the famous Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee. Her items told a story of Caribbean immigration, the Harlem Renaissance, and segregation. Her dad shined shoes and entertained passerby’s during in the 1930s. She said dad worked at Ocean Crest Hotel lobby in Long Beach. From his meager earnings, he was able to purchase a Brooklyn brownstone where she still lives today.
Sharleen Leahey, a peace advocate and folksinger brought in “Red Dust and Broadsides,” a songbook by Broadside magazine publisher, Sis Cunningham; a topical folk music songbook published in the early 1950s called “The Peoples Songbook” and a back issue of the topical folk music magazine “Broadside” published in 1964. The items provided an overview of American folklorists, the peace movement and authentic Black music. Lyrics and transcriptions of “Negro Slave” songs were published in the Cunningham book.
“The Smithsonian appraiser seemed quite knowledgeable about preserving old books and magazines and had a special interest in music publishing. We discussed some of the songs and issues discussed in my publications. In addition, we exchanged our knowledge of the legendary folklorists John and Alan Lomax who collected hundreds of American folk songs for the Smithsonian Folklife Center in the early and mid-20th Century,” said Leahy.
Photo: Jean-Marie Bain holds her father’s shoe shine box at Brooklyn’ Museum’s “Buried Treasures” event sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum. Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will bring “Buried Treasures” to more locations. For more information go to: nmaahc.si.edu.