Back in the late 1960s, Bill Cosby narrated a documentary called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed.” It came to mind last month when I attended a highly unusual history and art exhibition at a private North Arlington home.
Several dozen arts activists, school and county board types and Arlington Community Foundation folks gathered for a special viewing of rare African-American historical artifacts and paintings by Avis Collins Robinson.
An economist with the Environmental Protection Agency, Robinson is married to Washington Post columnist and TV commentator Eugene Robinson, and both have spent decades collecting museum-quality objects testifying to the history of slavery and the civil rights struggle.
Though most of the 2,300 artifacts in the “Please Remember Me” collection are in storage, on this day the couple had assembled the best for viewing by the transfixed wine-and-cheese consumers.
In the kitchen was an authentic 18th-century cotton gin, the clever wooden machine that revolutionized plantation life for enslaved Americans and their business-oriented overlords.
On the wall in wood cases were rusted shackles and cuffs that were standard tools of the slave trader. The wrist restraints are small, Avis Robinson noted, because the average age of a captured African was 15. Even more ominous is the hand-forged iron collar, its blades pointing outward to make it difficult for runaways to escape through underbrush.
Framed on a wall were two handwritten letters of manumission. On a chair was a greatcoat of buffalo hide worn by the Buffalo Soldiers, the “negro cavalry” the U.S. Army formed in 1866 in Kansas.
Folded on a table was an actual Ku Klux Klan robe of a Grand Dragon leader, white with a red insignia stitched by a Michigan tailor, whose invoice rested alongside. That display was enhanced by a panoramic black-and-white photo of hundreds of Klan members gathered in 1925 on the Washington Monument grounds.
Also showcased were patchwork quilts Avis Robinson made from old cloth in a manner of enslaved ancestors. One of Robinson’s paintings—in joyful colors and semi-realistic style using real fabrics—combines images of cotton pickers with a rendering of herself as a child.
Her skillful portraits include Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as well as Barack Obama. Robinson’s talents are recognized enough for Ford’s Theater to have commissioned her to execute a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
A native of Montgomery County, Md., Avis Robinson likes to mix photos of family members with historical artifacts. Her husband grew up in segregated Orangeburg, S.C., so the drama of America’s racial past is real for them both.
“My artwork is extremely personal and reflects my profound devotion and respect for the African Americans who influence my life – people who made it possible for me to think and express my feelings without fear of retribution or doubt regarding those feelings’ validity,” she says. “Many of the people that I paint were not proud of their occupations, and they didn’t like to talk about being a janitor, maid, servant, or sharecropper. What I try to depict is the humanity of these people – their internal beauty, the degradation and anger that they felt working lower-class jobs with first-class intellectual capabilities.”
The Robinsons’ rarities would thrill many museums. Numerous curators have inquired. For now, the artifacts are too personally meaningful for the Robinsons to part with. None, at least, are lost, stolen or strayed.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]