Preserving The Past
FORT LAUDERDALE – After learning how to sew in middle school, Willowstine Lawson began making her own fashions, including the dresses she wore as a student at Miami Jackson High School. Thinking of how much her grandmother loved to make quilts, Lawson routinely sent leftover fabrics to Summerton, S.C., where her grandparents were sharecroppers.
One summer in the late 1970s, when Lawson and her siblings were visiting, her grandmother presented her with a quilt hand-stitched from some of Lawson’s colorful remnants.
“I was surprised that she would make the quilt from those scraps,” said Lawson, the Broward County regional director for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Lawson said she treasured the gift but did not recognize at the time that the quilt was more than just a cover to keep her warm when she attended the University of Florida in Gainesville or to display later on her bed from time to time in Miami.
“I was young, in my teens when she gave it to me,” said Lawson. “I didn’t appreciate it like I do now. “Over time, she realized that her grandmother’s handiwork was a treasure worth preserving.
On Saturday, with the advice of textile experts from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Lawson and hundreds of others learned how to preserve their keepsakes.
The Smithsonian started its “Save Our African-American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation” project in 2008 with grants from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Antiques Road Show of sorts visited 13 other cities before coming to the Broward County African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 11 and 12.
More than 200 people brought in items that ranged from quilts and military uniforms to tattered photographs and newspaper clippings. Hazel Armbrister of Pompano Beach, regarded as a “Political Pioneer” in Broward County, took a book to be appraised.
The mementos were reviewed by Smithsonian and other archival experts, said James A. Gordon, public affairs specialist for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
“What they are doing is incredible,” said Lawson, who took her quilt home in an acid-free box provided at no cost through the project.
Retired Col. Richard J. Hinton of Fort Lauderdale, who spent 30 years in the Army, brought an August 1942 Theater Arts Magazine headlined “The Negro in the American Theater.” Hinton, of Fort Lauderdale, said he used to do theater work in the military when he was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, in the 1970s.
“One of my directors gave it to me,” said Hinton, who later taught the JROTC program at Miami Norland High School for 19 years. “There’s a photo in it of Paul Robeson as Othello. I was amazed.” Hinton said he took the magazine to the event at the library not so much to learn how to preserve it but to donate it.
“I thought it is an artifact that I should share with the Smithsonian,” Hinton said. The national museum, now under construction in Washington, D.C., will open in fall 2015. Staff members, already in place, are accepting some donations or materials that will become part of the museum’s holdings.
But the main purpose of the project is to encourage African Americans to recognize and preserve the treasures that may be deteriorating in their closets, garages and attics, said Renee S. Anderson, head of collections at the museum.
Communicating the importance and significance of the item is a key part of the preservation process, Anderson said.
“We lose our treasures because we don’t tell our family members what they are,” she said. “We often hear people say, ‘Mama had it, but I don’t know anything about this old thing.’
“If they understand that ‘this old thing’ is a quilt from Grandma Nettie, who made it from the shirts she sewed for her son when he went to school or from the party dresses she made for her daughter … If they understand that it is a treasure, then they have to treat it as a treasure and share it.”
Now that Lawson’s quilt is properly folded in its acid-free box, she said she will follow Anderson’s advice. “They said write the story about the quilt. I am going to write it and put in the box with the quilt,” she said.
For more information on the Save Our African American Treasures project and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, go to nmaahc.si.edu or call 202-633-1000.
APPRAISAL: Hazel Armbrister, right, has a book appraised during the Smithsonian Institution’s “Save Our African-American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation” project which came to the Broward County African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 11-12.