‘The most comprehensive Black History collection in the world’ up for auction

Former schoolteacher Elizabeth Meaders' collection of artifacts dating back to the era of slavery will be sold in bulk on March 15.

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“What is the history of a people worth?” asked Elizabeth Meaders in 2019, while showing off her incomparable collection of Black history memorabilia and artifacts to New York’s ABC7, 400 years after the first known ships brought enslaved Africans to America’s shores. The former history teacher has been collecting for over six decades, amassing what some have called “the most comprehensive Black History collection in the world” within her home on Staten Island, N.Y. Though the history of Black people in America is arguably priceless, Meaders’ question will at least be answered in part on March 15, as her massive collection is scheduled to be sold in bulk by New York City auction house Guernsey’s, reports the New York Times.

Elizabeth Meaders in her living room, surrounded by a portion of her collection.
Screengrab: ABC7NY/YouTube

“Crammed into this simple home is a collection that tells the whole saga of African American history, from the scourge of slavery to the struggle of civil rights, to Black soldiers in all of our wars from the Revolution through Vietnam,” Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s, told the Times.

A descendant of the last enslaved person to be freed on Staten Island, Meaders’ roots in the New York borough run deep. For a time, she even taught history at the middle school named for her grandfather, William A. Morris, founder of Staten Island’s branch of the N.A.A.C.P. as well as the owner of an auction house in the area. Clearly having inherited her grandfather’s eye for treasures, Meaders’ collection began with a hunt for Jackie Robinson memorabilia, during which she frequently encountered other rare pieces of Black history. Recognizing the worth of these items, she began cataloging relics from every era since 1619, all arranged by theme.

“Now, I have documented practically the entirety of the African American experience,” she told ABC7NY.

That includes a section she refers to as “civil rights and civil wrongs,” which doesn’t shy away from the darkest elements of the fight for freedom in the last century—like the Nazi flag captured by Black soldiers in World War II as well as a number of artifacts of the Ku Klux Klan, which Meaders characterized as “a cult.”

Credit: ABC7NY/YouTube

While ABC7 estimated there were about 50,000 items in Meaders’ collection in 2019, the New York Times placed that number closer to 20,000. What is not in dispute is the rarity of her finds, the Times reports.

In the room by her front door, an exhibit of military items used by Black soldiers includes headgear worn by Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and a parade helmet used by the famed buffalo soldiers in the 1800s.

In the living room, the couch is flanked by a life-size wax figure of the baseball slugger Hank Aaron and shelves of items honoring Black athletes, including a pair of Muhammad Ali’s tall white boxing shoes…

There is a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon robe and a K.K.K. brand water pistol for children. Next to the boiler are posters from Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater and a rocking chair that belonged to the pitcher Satchel Paige. Nearby is a golf bag that belonged to the pioneer Black golfer Charlie Sifford.

Credit: New York Times

“Our contribution is so much more than a month,” said Meaders.

In fact, the 90-year-old’s home, while not open to the public, has become a kind of de facto museum of African-American history, an institution notably lacking in New York City. With her own daughters disinterested in maintaining the collection, Meaders is clearing out the three-story home that has become overcrowded with relics on every level, with even more stored in her basement and garage. “I’m used up and the space is used up,” she told the Times, “so it has to be transferred into competent hands that can take it to the next level.”

Museums and universities are expected to be among the leading bidders for the collection, which at least one expert has appraised at $10 million. It’s a remarkable figure made even more so by the fact that Meaders amassed most of her collection on a schoolteacher’s salary, reportedly holding bake sales, raffles and even refinancing her home to raise enough funds to outbid formidable collectors. According to Ettinger, conversations have already taken place and a deal may even be struck prior to the March 15 auction date. He also doesn’t rule out a philanthropist purchasing the collection for the purpose of donating it.

As she now prepares to sell, Meaders told the Times she would personally love to see the collection become the basis for establishing that aforementioned museum in New York. Most important, amid a concentrated and coordinated effort to suppress the teaching of the more racialized aspects of American history, she hopes the artifact will help encourage deeper scholarship and recognition of the true history of Black Americans.

“Harmony can be increased by a full understanding of the role every American played,” she told ABC7, later adding, “America is somewhat handicapped if it doesn’t fully embrace all of its people—and in doing that, you embrace all of their history, and it glorifies us all.”

The auction of the Elizabeth Meaders collection will take place on March 15 at 2 p.m. at Guernsey’s Auction House.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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