Evelyn Johnson’s father has never liked talking about his time in the Army during World War II. He was angry that black servicemen like him fought for freedom overseas only to come home to face discrimination, she says.
On Saturday, Johnson learned how to best preserve the box full of letters—written in pencil, still folded in their original envelopes—at an event organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Held in collaboration with the Chicago Public Library, the daylong event featured classes where attendees could learn how to safely handle and preserve photos, clothing, textiles, collectibles, books and paper items.
The program was the first in a Smithsonian series called “Save Our African American Treasures.” Similar events are planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Attendees also were able to meet one-on-one with conservation experts, similar to the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow.” However, the emphasis was not on financial worth, but cultural and historical significance.
Wearing cotton gloves, the conservation experts dispensed advice on preserving more than 100 items.
Some of the items included a cap worn by a sleeping-car porter working for the Pullman Co. and a gold-colored pin given to a top saleswoman by Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur who built a fortune by developing and marketing hair care and beauty products to African-American women in the early 1900s.
Lonnie Bunch III, the museum’s founding director, said he came up with the idea for the event while thinking about how the museum will build its collection. The museum, created by an act of Congress in 2003, is to be built on a site on the National Mall in Washington, with construction expected to be completed in 2015.
Bunch said some items examined during the “African American Treasures” events might eventually get into the museum’s collection. He would particularly love to find a uniform worn by a soldier during the early period of World War I, or signage related to segregation.
But he also wants people with historical items—if no one in the family is interested in caring for them—to consider donating them to local libraries, museums and institutions where they could become part of a research collection.