A cloth sign stood in Alan Page’s living room, its message timely: “Our country shall be one country.” But as he spun the sepia sign around, the words on its other side revealed its history: “Uncle Abe we will not forget you.”
Mourners held up that handmade sign in 1865, as a train passed bringing Abraham Lincoln to his grave.
For years, Page and his wife, Diane Sims Page, have displayed it in their Kenwood home, a powerful reminder of “the ideals and promise of America,” as she put it. “The unmet promise,” added Alan, 72, retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice and former Minnesota Vikings star.
More people need that reminder, the couple believe. So this month, they’re showing a selection of their vast collection of artifacts — amassed over three decades — at the Hennepin County Library - Minneapolis Central in an exhibit titled “Testify: Americana From Slavery to Today.” Together, the objects and artworks reveal the dark, difficult and ultimately hopeful history of African-Americans.
Like the sign, fashioned for a slain president, many pieces are moving. Inspiring. The first time that Alan, known for his stoicism, read the sign’s words, his eyes welled with tears.
But there are troubling objects, too. Signs that long segregated the South — its drinking fountains and pools, buses and schools — into “colored” and “whites only.” A branding iron used to scar slaves. A slave collar, heavy and cold.
“I sort of divide the collection into objects of oppression, balanced with art and artifacts of expression,” said Diane, executive director of the Page Education Foundation.
“People will be challenged, and they will be inspired,” Alan said.
The timing is intentional. As racial tensions have risen in the United States, so too have sweeping debates about how to remember the country’s past. In Southern cities, residents have protested for and against removing monuments erected in honor of Confederate generals, some of whom were also early members of the Ku Klux Klan. People who believe the statues should stay have argued that “we want to remember and honor our heritage,” Alan noted with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, this exhibit shows, these objects show what that heritage is,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get people to stop and think about that. Because this is what it really means.”
The exhibit begins with a brick from the original White House, fashioned by a slave in the 1790s. It ends with a so-called “testification station.” At the stand-up desk from Alan’s old court chambers, borrowed for the occasion, visitors can respond to what they’ve seen, writing their thoughts in a leather-bound journal.
“I hope that people will take this experience forward and have conversations about it,” said Lois Langer Thompson, director of Hennepin County Library. “While it can be hard, I think there’s also a power in those stories.”
A home for history
Every wall and hallway of the Pages’ home is covered in art and artifacts. Black-and-white photographs, racist posters, richly hued portraits.
Some are original artworks by big names: In the kitchen, one painting titled “Graduation,” by folk artist Clementine Hunter, shows figures in gowns lined up to get their diplomas. Others’ origins are unknown: In a pair of framed sepia portraits, unnamed people stare straight forward. “I couldn’t stand to have them be in the basement of an antique mall, so I bought them,” Diane explained.
Decades ago, when the living room was covered in shag carpet, Warhols hung from the walls. But in the late 1980s, a friend asked Diane, “Where is your black art for your children?” The question spurred a passion. Diane began collecting memorabilia, such as a cookie jar modeled after Rosa Parks.
But at antique stores and sales across the country she began buying racist items, too. “Whites only” and “For colored” signs from the Jim Crow era. An 1897 collection of photographs of black babies, labeled “Alligator Bait.” Ku Klux Klan dolls, fashioned by a Dallas family and displayed in a department store window to welcome a convention to town.
During his tenure on the state Supreme Court, Alan displayed items in his chambers as a daily reminder.
“When you stop and think about some of it, it’s difficult,” he said. “But I think it’s absolutely necessary that we don’t lose sight of the fact that one group of citizens in this country held another group in bondage.”
Within a few years, the Pages’ “modern, sleek” home transformed into a museum of sorts, dedicated to a difficult history, said daughter Georgi Page-Smith. “It was a shock, and it was an adjustment.” The Jim Crow-era signs, in particular, troubled her as a multiracial teenager, she said. But Georgi came to understand why the items were meaningful to her parents and their mission.
“Something they did worked, because all of us kids are pretty engaged,” she noted.
Georgi, who now lives in Brooklyn, is managing and helping to curate the exhibit, which runs through Super Bowl weekend and closes Feb. 6. Inspired by artist Fred Wilson, she’s working to pair very different objects, making visible the brutal system that made elegant Southern society possible. Beautiful Venetian glass candelabras, for example, will stand beside the metal slave collar.
“When you see the two together,” Georgi said, “they suddenly become more charged.”