THE GREATER ACACIA COLLECTION HISTORICAL JOURNEY
A GREENE PATH TO JOURNEY'S END
Carroll Greene is a founding board member, curator and executive director of collections for Acacia Historical Arts International. He was the pioneer African American in Museum Studies at the Smithsonian Institution in 1968. This was a time when that institution was enthralled with the idea of the neighborhood museums and had recently sponsored the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Administratively Greene was attached to the office of Director-General of Museums, Frank Taylor, and provided with an office and an able assistant in the Division of Cultural History in the Museum of History & Technology (now the Museum of American History.) Carroll Greene met weekly with Silvio Bedini, assistant director of History and Technology. Bedini, a specialist in 18th century mathematical and scientific instruments was then completing the latest edition of his book on the life and work of Benjamin Banneker, America's first black man of science.
Greene's meetings with Bedini and Taylor were important, meaningful and valuable at a critical crossroad of historical lamination of America's racial heritage. The problem was that at the time of the Civil Rights Movement the Smithsonian had only random and incidental material relating to African Americans. There had never been any systematic effort to include material culture relating to African Americans. The Smithsonian library told the whole story with fewer than twenty (20) books on, by and about African Americans on its shelves. For starters Greene recommended several bibliographies beginning with Harvard University. Jack Goodwin, the librarian, to his everlasting credit acted and changed that situation. Greene took an informal survey of the Smithsonian's holdings of African American artifacts. He also, with permission, queried the curators about exhibits, displays, archives, etc. What a shock when one curator in a question regarding Dr. George Washington Carver and how his contribution was recognized and represented, stated that he had written to Carver's alma mater and obtained a copy of the transcript of his grades. Greene asked the question "Why is it when it comes to people of color something special has to be concocted?" And these were curators for the most part with the most advanced degrees from the leading colleges and universities in the country. In addition, Greene also checked the Index of American Design. There the pickings were slim with little decorative arts attributed to slave handcraftä.in short, our nation's attic was almost bare in the case of Americans of African descent.
Imagine Greene's excitement when only months after coming to the Smithsonian, he visited Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum and met Mrs. Judith Wragg Chase. Despite the name of the museum (the American aversion to the word slavery) Mrs. Chase was displaying the visual arts of contemporary African Americans as well as the works of Africans both historic and contemporary. Greene was impressed that someone over the years cared enough to collect, preserve and interpret this African American treasure. As previously noted Greene purchased a number of items from the Museum Gift Shop which became a part of The Collection of The Cultural History Division of the Smithsonian Institute. Some of the slave recipes were exceptional such as peach leather, whole peaches that had been dried and rolled like bread dough and lightly sprinkled with granulated sugar. Delicious! An 1840's painting by an ex-slave who gave it to the man who helped him escape to freedom caught Greene's eye continuing to fuel Greene's intellectual passion to save African American culture for future generations.
Carroll Greene's sojourn at the Smithsonian had some bright spots-some helpful friendly colleagues. Since he was called upon to fill various roles while there, his fellowship was extended. He was also a trustee of the Frederick Douglass Institute/Museum of African Art, founded by Warren Robbins and working with Robbins, Greene and Robert Simmons were responsible for the first retrospective exhibit of the work of the expatriat painter Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937).This exhibition was co-sponsored by the Douglass Institute in cooperation with the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art.) Through Greene's efforts the Smithsonian had its greatest African American attendance ever during the summer of 1969. This exhibition traveled for two years nationally. Greene acquired a collection of African American graphics from Middleton Harris, New York African American Collection and a collection of marine graphics from Gulbrandsen Shipping depicting the British anti-slavery activities off the coast of Africa during the 19th century. Greene also gave illustrated slide lectures about his African American research to students from nearby colleges including George Washington University.
During the ensuing decades of the 1970's and 1980's, Greene continued to privately purchase select African American artifacts to secure these treasures from neglect or destruction which served as the basis of the creation of the Acacia Collection.
The Acacia Collection of African Americana was formally started by Greene in 1989 and fully compliments the Old Slave Mart Museum and Library Collection. Until coming to Savannah, Georgia, Greene had never seen the mother lode of African American artifacts available in Georgia and the Carolinas. Originally he set out to build a collection of artifacts made by African Americans to sustain and enhance their own lives. Insofar as possible he was attempting to tell the story of the African American sojourn through the things they made and used. He called these artifacts remnants from a culture of "making do." But that became only one theme in a collection with so many diverse things from so many varied backgrounds, for example: the rare collection of nearly twenty whole pieces of colonoware (unfired utilitarian pottery of the 17th & 18th century), an 1859 Afro-American gourd banjo, a one-stringer and other musical instruments, a selection of quilts, basketry, tools, finely crafted Thomas Day furniture or simple gifts that African Americans gave among themselves.
Carroll Greene points out some things he thinks important about material culture descended from African roots. " Remember," he says," that spirituality is at the center of traditional African life and reflected in their material culture. Of course we know that African descended material culture in America is more of a hybrid: African, Native American and European. Even the term African is too broad a term. African covers many ethnic groups, so which ones are we trying to define Yoruba, Kongo, Dan, etc. or what possible combination. A cross in a circle is probably a Kongo cosmogram and not a Christian symbol. The point being, is that these artifacts should be studied with careful eye regarding the symbols of respective cultural groups." In 1968, when Greene started his museum studies at the Smithsonian, material culture specialists such as Robert Farris Thompson and John Michael Vlach and others had not yet emerged. Not to mention the expansion of African Studies which have come a long way since the late 1960's . Knowledge continues to increase and as it does the Greater Acacia Collection will reveal secrets that although in plain sight today are as though they were invisible.
Greene's goal and that of the board of Acacia Historical Arts International is to have the collections available to the largest audience possible as a powerful tool of enlightenment, education and knowledge. A place where access to the collections voluminous archives will spur academic curiosity, research, and the creation of text books and through exhibits of artifacts to tell the true history of the unique ingenuity of Americans of African descent, a people who survived the most brutal of human conditions only to remain resilient contributors to the American way of life. Knowledge and understanding is a means to set us free from all past misunderstanding and create a real "Bridge of Understanding" among all of mankind.
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