This schoolteacher spent seven decades gathering thousands of Black history artifacts

Emmanuel Kwarteng September 06, 2022
Photo credit: CBS News

The possessions of a 90-year-old retired teacher include Ku Klux Klan toys in addition to Muhammad Ali boxing sneakers and Tuskegee Airmen headgear. The atrocities of slavery are on display in Elizabeth Meaders’ dining room, with posters offering rewards for persons who are apprehended while attempting to elude servitude and the implements used to punish them, including a branding iron, wooden hobbles, and a bullwhip.

Among Elizabeth Meaders’ collections are art, military souvenirs, civil rights posters, and sports relics. The Tuskegee Airmen’s World War II headgear and the renowned buffalo soldiers’ 18th-century parade helmets are among the military relics on display in the room near the front entrance.

A life-size wax replica of Hank Aaron, a baseball slugger, and shelves of memorabilia celebrating Black athletes, along with a pair of Muhammad Ali’s towering, white boxing shoes, are placed on either side of the couch in the living room.

The facade of Meaders’ house offers little hints of the artifacts kept inside, except for a solitary banner bearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s portrait and the words “I Have a Dream.” Shackles, an overseer’s whip, and ceramics depicting scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin are scattered on a dining room table in Meaders’ other room. Above the table, a large blue flag from the New York Anti-Slavery Society with memorials to John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe can be seen.

One of the biggest libraries of African-American ancient artifacts in the nation is Meaders’ collection, which she has been amassing for more than 60 years. Meaders is a retired teacher from New York City. The entire house is filled with hundreds of objects that have been arranged thematically, transforming it into a sort of museum that only a select few individuals have ever visited. While touring the exhibitions lately, Meaders remarked, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” She said that the garage, basement, and closets house the majority of the collection in storage boxes.

She started collecting as a young girl by gathering souvenirs of Black sportsmen like Jackie Robinson, and later she expanded her collection to surround herself with things that boosted her emotions. But because she is 90 years old and has run out of time and storage capacity, she auctioned her collection all at once in March at the Manhattan Guernsey’s auction house. Despite her reluctance, Meaders’ chronic health issues, including diabetes, persuaded her that the time has come to sell the collection. 

She added modestly, “It’s taking up too much space in my house as well. It’s overdue, really.” Meaders reached out to Guernsey’s, a New York auction house, last year.

Meaders, who really wants the pieces to serve as the foundation of an African American museum in New York, hopes the sale will give it a better life since it doesn’t belong in anybody’s house any longer because she believes each piece needs a chance to sing its own song. Many artifacts are undocumented, leaving Meaders as the primary expert on their origins, authenticity, and historical value. She has produced extensive video pieces that describe the collection. 

According to Meaders, her relatives include household workers who worked for abolitionists in the eighteenth century and the final slave who was set free on Staten Island in the middle of the 1800s. She claimed that the NAACP branch on Staten Island was formed by her grandpa, William A. Morris, who also owned an auction shop there. Meaders taught history at the middle school that was later named in his honor. 

“I’ve struggled to tell a history that’s been either ignored or not told correctly, and it’s a history that’s directly related to me,” she told the Times. “The more I found, the more I wanted because the whole thing became a huge puzzle and I began obsessively trying to fill in the missing pieces.”

Cost for collection 

Meaders claimed that in order to pay for her purchases, she worked many jobs at once, made installment purchases of goods, and took out loans based on the worth of her home. Although she’s never been affluent, she refinanced her house several times and accrued a sizable amount of debt. 

The collection was valued at $7.5 million in 2009 by Randy F. Weinstein, the creator of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Despite having visited several outstanding collections, Weinstein remarked that the size and depth of this one were beyond what he could have ever imagined.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 6, 2022


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