The Montague Collection: Time is running out in the countdown to save rare black history artifacts

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Portraits of slaves caring for vegetable crops, a letter from Haitian liberation leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, a book by a real-life veteran of the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment immortalized in the 1989 film Glory, a rare painting by George Washington Carver and on-set photos from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company are just a sampling of the treasures Nathaniel Montague collected for over 50 years.

Wanting to properly archive his collection chronicling African-American history and culture, Montague took out a loan from New York-based ABKCO Music and Records, an independent entertainment company that holds the rights to music by Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack and The Rolling Stones. It’s the same company The Beatles’s George Harrison battled with in the 1970s over a song’s copyright; plus in 2008, ABKCO sued Lil Wayne over his song “Playing with Fire” on Tha Carter III, claiming it was derived from “Play with Fire” by The Rolling Stones.

ABKCO is (perhaps rightfully) litigious; this made the situation dire when Montague, like so many other Americans over the last few years, fell on hard times, and was forced to declare bankruptcy. Consequentially, his prized collection of rare African-American artifacts was seized last year by Montague’s creditor, with ABKCO winning a judgment for $325,000 plus fees against the amateur historian.

RELATED: Black history collection could be broken up, sold to highest bidder

To settle the debt, ABKCO advocates selling the collection off piece by piece, but did agree to give the trusteeship in control of the pieces six months to prevent that by paying Montague’s judgement, with final bids for the collection due July 13. If no acceptable terms are presented, ABKCO plans to petition the court during a scheduled July 20 hearing to begin selling off the Montague African American Collection Catalogue, returning whatever remains to Montague.

The newly formed American Arts Trust, a pending 501(c)3, hopes to foil that. Created by Ricky Schultz and David Hahn, veterans of the music, film, and television industries, the mission of the American Arts Trust is “to preserve, protect and promote those arts and crafts that are uniquely American.” And Montague’s prized collection, which they intend to house temporarily at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum (the product of another impassioned African-American collector), would be their first major acquisition.

Nathaniel Montague never set out to become a gatekeeper of African-American history. Who even knew the position was open? But he was involved in history early on, primarily in making it. Born in 1928 and raised in segregated Elizabeth, N.J., Montague attended a black military school and later became a merchant marine. But radio is where he thought he belonged so he ended up in Galveston, Texas, then headed off to Beaumont in the same state where there was a DJ vacancy at KTRM. That was 1954.

Montague flourished in radio, eventually becoming known as the “Magnificent Montague” in his field. He didn’t make the records, but he was among the pioneering DJs who played them, attracting not just black fans but young white ones, too. In fact, his wife Rose was one of them when he was on the air in Louisiana.

Marrying a white woman in the south was not safe, so he and Rose left the region. She didn’t completely understand why he didn’t come into restaurants with her or had her book the hotel room and joined her later as they traveled to Chicago. They’ve remained married for over 50 years.

Spreading the emerging R&B sound, Magnificent Montague was known for bridging the air space between records with his own poetry. A popular DJ, Montague found jobs in big markets like Chicago as well as New York, where he was on the legendary WWRL. This pioneering outlet played Motown, Stax recordings and early James Brown in the early 1960s when that wasn’t so common. Black radio was just taking form and Montague was one of the many who helped give it its shape.

He landed on Los Angeles’s KGFJ in 1965. Just five months after his arrival, the Watts Riots kicked off. His signature “Burn, baby, burn” — which Montague coined at WWRL as he spun hits by Sam Cooke and others — became blacks’ rallying cry. Shortly thereafter, the radio veteran adopted “Have mercy, Los Angeles!” as his signature.

Fortunately, Montague was already beginning to find his mercy. In 1956, he discovered Paul Laurence Dunbar, the celebrated African-American poet who wrote in a melodic and infectious black dialect. “I bought the book, and I never looked back after that,” Montague told writer Tiffany Alexander about one of his first rare book purchases.

Then going on to amass a collection containing over 8,000 items, Montague claims that there are at least 500 to 600 pieces the public has never seen. Because the collection was seized and placed in a secret location where it is heavily secured, Montague and his wife Rose, who helped him catalogue the artifacts, may be the only two who have seen the collection in all its glory.

Through his company Nanny Jack (also owned by his mother and stepfather), Philip J. Merrill, the well-known African American memorabilia and history expert from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, has worked in a number of capacities since the collection was seized in an effort to help Montague. One of the few people granted access to the storage facility, Merrill, under the watchful eye of armed security, was awed by what he was permitted to see.

One of Merrill’s favorites in the Montague Collection, which also happens to be among its most valuable pieces, pertains to the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Founded in Omaha, Nebraska by African-American brothers George and Noble Johnson in 1915 and later moved to Los Angeles, Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced several films. The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition, a two-reel feature film released in 1916, is about a Tuskegee graduate who leaves his dad’s farm seeking his fortune in the California oil fields.