The Staten Island House Where Black History Lives
In Elizabeth Meaders dining room, the horrors of slavery are displayed on the table: reward posters for catching people fleeing slavery and the tools – a branding iron, wooden shackles and a whip – to punish them.
In the room near his front door, a display of military items used by black soldiers includes headgear worn by Tuskegee airmen during World War II and a parade helmet used by famous Buffalo soldiers in the 1800s.
In the living room, the couch is flanked by a life-size wax figure of baseball hitter Hank Aaron and shelves of items honoring black athletes, including a pair of large white Muhammad Ali boxing shoes.
From the outside, Mrs. Meaders’ Staten Island home is unremarkable – a cramped three-story box in the working-class Mariners Harbor neighborhood. But to step inside, with her as your guide, is to journey through the black American experience, from the horrors of slavery and the dream of the civil rights movement to the glory of stars like James Brown and Cab Calloway.
The collection of approximately 20,000 objects that Ms. Meaders, a retired schoolteacher from New York City, has built up over more than six decades is one of the largest collections of historical African-American artifacts in the country.
Hundreds of objects are thematically arranged throughout the house, turning it into a kind of museum so few people have ever seen it in person.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Meaders said recently as she browsed the exhibits. Most of the collection, she added, is kept in storage boxes in closets, in the basement and in the garage.
Ms Meaders, a retired schoolteacher from New York, said she began collecting memorabilia of Jackie Robinson and other black athletes in her youth, then expanded her collection to “surround myself with things that boost morale”.
But she is now 90, and with limited years and storage space, she is finally selling her collection in a bundle on March 15 at the Guernsey auction house in Manhattan.
“I can’t go any further – the collection is getting too big for the house and pushing me out,” said Ms Meaders, whose two daughters aren’t interested in taking it back. “I’m exhausted and the space is exhausted, so it needs to be transferred into capable hands who can take it to the next level.”
Ms Meaders said she hoped to attract a buyer who would make the collection accessible to the public and to scholars, at a museum or university, for example.
“I hope the sale gives it a better life as it no longer belongs to anyone – every piece needs a chance to sing its own song,” said Ms Meaders, whose real wish is for the items to become the basis of an African-American museum in New York.
Many objects lack documented details of their provenance, authenticity and historical significance, leaving Mrs. Meaders herself as the sole authority. She made long video segments detailing the collection.
Arlan Ettinger, President of Guernsey, said he was unaware of ‘no other black history-focused collection of this size that has ever come up for auction before’.
“Turned in this simple home is a collection that chronicles the entire saga of African-American history, from the scourge of slavery to the struggle for civil rights, to black soldiers in all our wars, from the Revolution in Vietnam,” Mr. Ettinger said. , whose auction house has handled the estate sales of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Rosa Parks and Joe Frazier, as well as Apollo Theater equipment.
Diane DeBlois, co-owner of ephemera sellers aGatherin in West Sand Lake, NY, which valued the collection at $10 million, said she was lifted by the story of a brave teacher who was resourceful enough to acquire items on a low budget.
“She had to compete with some pretty impressive collectors to outbid her,” Ms. DeBlois said. “She raised money through bake sales and school raffles in all sorts of ways.”
Ms Meaders said she financed her acquisitions by working multiple jobs at once, as well as buying items on installments and borrowing against the value of her home.
“I’ve never been rich, but I’ve refinanced my house several times and taken on a lot of debt,” she says.
Randy F. Weinstein, founder of the WEB Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, Mass., valued the collection at $7.5 million in 2009.
“I’ve seen some great collections, but it was something in my wildest dreams that I could have ever imagined, the vastness and depth of it,” he said.
Mr Ettinger said he had already had discussions with potential buyers, including several universities, and it was possible a deal could be struck before the auction.
Often, he says, a philanthropist may purchase such a collection to donate for the public good; that happened with the Rosa Parks estate, which was purchased through Guernsey by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2014 for $4.5 million and donated to the Library of Congress.
Ms Meaders, a history buff, said her collection began with fan material related to her teenage idol Jackie Robinson, who broke professional baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 .
She began visiting displays of sports memorabilia, then buying items honoring other black athletes, such as boxer Joe Louis. An image of Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first American killed in the American Revolution, sparked interest in black military items, “and little by little I got bigger, and it became a labor of love”, she said.
Ms. Meaders’ ancestry, she said, includes servants in abolitionist households in the 1700s and the last freed slave on Staten Island in the mid-1800s.
What is the 1619 project?
Recognize a historical moment. In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched Project 1619, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project explored the history of slavery in the United States and was released to coincide with the anniversary of a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans to English colonies.
Her grandfather, William A. Morris, owned an auction house on Staten Island and founded the island’s NAACP branch, she said. Later he had a college named after him where Mrs. Meaders taught history.
“I struggled to tell a story that was ignored or mistold, and it’s a story that directly affects me,” she said. “The more I found, the more I wanted because it all became a huge puzzle and I started obsessively trying to fill in the missing pieces.”
One of the main goals was to educate people about forgotten black histories.
“It’s a goldmine of information, with so many stories that have never been told,” she said. “That’s the purpose of my collection: to educate, heal, inspire and empower.”
Wyatt Houston Day, a historian and appraiser who has visited Ms Meaders’ home, agrees.
“What makes her collection so unique,” said Mr. Day, who is also a former African-American sales specialist at Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan, “is that she has a lot of connective tissue that fills in the gaps in other accounts, small things that you won’t find in other collections but add important details.
For example, he says, “People talk about African Americans in the military, but she has a real musket that was supposedly carried by a black Civil War soldier.”
Ms Meaders said she made very few online purchases, as the specialty items she sought were best found by browsing auction catalogs and constantly calling dealers.
She was also a regular at antique dealers’ fairs and sellers of historical, military, sports and other memorabilia.
At numerous sales, she said, “I was often the only black woman there and considered an eccentric.”
Mrs Meaders has dedicated her life to collecting, Mr Day said: ‘When she started no one knew who she was, and now she is legendary in collecting circles – everyone knows Elizabeth.’
There were certain items that his limited budget made out of reach. For example, in a telephone auction on one of the pens used to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Ms Meaders reluctantly pulled out when the bid rose to $8,000 with no installment plan. available.
She still regrets it. “That would have been the highlight of my civil rights collection,” she said.
Up a narrow, creaky staircase leading to her basement is an exhibit she calls “Civil Rights and Civil Misdeeds.”
There is a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon robe and a KKK brand water gun for the kids. Next to the boiler are posters of Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater and a rocking chair that once belonged to pitcher Satchel Paige. Nearby is a golf bag that once belonged to black golf pioneer Charlie Sifford.
A valuable piece is an Army of the James Medal given by white Civil War General Benjamin Butler to one of his black soldiers.
Asked about the possibility of a fire or burglars, she shrugged. “I hate to tell you this,” she added, “but there aren’t too many people who would even know what they’re looking at.”
Many items are unique, such as the hand-carved wooden fireplace depicting abolitionist John Brown. One of Ms Meaders’ dearest items is a medal honoring Crispus Attucks which she said she acquired from a ‘top dealer well known as an eccentric’.
“I had to go through hell to get it, but it was worth it,” she said.
Selling her collection will finally give Ms Meaders some living space, but she admitted it may not completely stop her collecting.
When a sought-after item recently came up for auction – a Ku Klux Klan dress made for a child – she resisted and instead implored another collector to buy it.
“I think even when I’m in my casket and something is up for auction,” she said, “I’m probably going to put out a bid.”