Dr. Charles Smith (b. 1940)
African American History Museum and Black Veteran's Archive
Art Type or Medium: Environment/Installation
Secular or Religious: Secular with Religious aspects
Instead of sidewalks, an allegorical carpet-bottomed drainage ditch runs along both sides of Charles Smith’s corner property in a restless residential neighborhood of Hammond, Louisiana. A moat around “hallowed ground” with a small trestle bridge leading to the front entrance of his African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive home, it represents the Niger River.
A low wall of rocks and broken concrete (one for every African-American soldier killed in Vietnam) forms a water-monster guarded embankment [slide 2] along the ‘river’s’ edge. Water surrounding the perimeter also recalls the swampland refuge of escaped slaves, and the concrete-sculpted alligator-like monster [slide 3] represents both danger to the runaways, and protection from “slave catchers” who feared to enter. Large disembodied heads facing the street are seen throughout the encircling wall: it is also symbolic of the Mississippi River levee where the decapitated heads of recaptured slaves were displayed on poles after the Destrehan Plantation tribunal of 1795.
A few meters south of the water-monster, the smooth dark Egyptian Memorial figure [slide 5] sits along the embankment. Larger than life-size and wearing an asp headdress, it represents the enduring, but overlooked contribution of Egypt to the legacy of African culture. While wet from the frequent rains, the glistening concrete pharaonic sculpture almost appears to have been carved from basalt. Near the house, a (discreetly) topless sculpture of Condoleezza Rice1 [slide 6] seems cast from gold, she’s a “golden girl” of modern culture, linked by latex gilding to ancient African royalty.
Just inside the perimeter embankment towards the southeast corner, the Mother of Africa [slide 8] towers over the site in an outspread white-washed dress. A queen representing African cultural fertility, and an earth goddess for the human race, “[I believe] that life started in Africa,” to Dr. Smith she also represents Bertha Mary Smith his mother, Mary his wife, and Mary of Nazareth: she wears a silver ‘Mother-of-Christ’ radiating crown emblem on her crest of knotted-black basin rug Suku hair.
“Once that piece was completed, many of the young ladies in the neighborhood started wearing their hair just like that…they grow up to be ladies…larger than life, but you’ve got to…carry yourself with the morals that go with [being] a queen.”
An ‘Unnamed Slave Boy’ Resurrected
Passing more slave heads along the southern boundary, visitors come to a colossal male figure sitting at the opening in the embankment wall where the small bridge leads onto the property. Dressed in white with thick horizontal black stripes, the founder of Hammond, Louisiana’s ‘favorite slave boy,’ is impossible to miss [slide 9]. Interred without a name or dates under a small ground marker for the ‘UNNAMED SLAVE BOY’ a few blocks away in the Hammond family cemetery on Charles Street [slide 10], the Slave of Hammond, of indeterminate age,2 has been resurrected as a civic monument. Now publicly honored and embraced as an ancestral son, Dr. Smith calls him “Charles”.
Smith uses black stripes on white – dark reflections of the many U.S. flags seen throughout the site – to recall prison garbs and link the incarceration of African-American males to the legacy of slave trading. Several alluringly exposed female figures are anatomically wrapped and bound to assure chaste delivery to their New World buyers [slide 11] & [slide 12].
Equality Under Fire in Vietnam
Set slightly back from the southwest corner, a three-meter, accidental self-portrait bust wearing a Marine Corps helmet, holds the American flag over the western border of the site [slide 13]. An extension of its large, ironically ‘WE SHALL DEFEND’ emblazoned base, the figure wears an olive drab, v-neck uniform shirt, striped with the Pan-African colors: red (blood), green (fertile land), and black (people). Smith says:
“I really in the beginning didn’t have in mind…putting me [up] there, but…a kid rolled by…and he says, “Hey, Mister…that you?”” [and] “I say, well yeah okay, that’ll be me.”
Born into the segregated South in 1940, Charles Smith has titled himself with an honorary doctorate of life experience and understanding. Following his father’s death, his mother moved the family from New Orleans to Chicago in the late 1940’s, where in 1955, she brought her children to open-casket services for the mutilated corpse of Emmet Till3. After being drafted in 1966, Smith finally found equality under fire in Vietnam, and he recalls the red blood of all races mixing easily together on the ground. He struggled with PTSD and drifted from job to job after his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 1968. His self-portrait memorializes the sacrifice of all black soldiers to an otherwise discriminatory country.
First Home Art Environment in Illinois
After seeing imported African sculptures at a Chicago Navy Pier art exhibit in the early 1990s, Smith who is untrained in the arts, began building the first location of his museum and archive in and around his Aurora, Illinois home [slide 14].
Lisa Stone wrote about that now mostly abandoned site4:
“Unlike exhibits of “objective truths” in conventional history museums, Dr. Smith’s artist’s museum expressed history perhaps more truthfully rendered, as a stream of historical moments created from the stuff of everyday life. The dichotomy of the collective and personal realms was subtly intertwined, rooting the arc of history in the plane of common experience.”
Chicago activist Revin Fellows [slide 16] arranged community events, and brought returning busloads of young school children to the Aurora site for group discussions surrounded by their cultural legacy. Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmet Till’s mother, spoke at the museum in 1994, and through several tearful meetings, Ms. Till-Mobley helped Charles overcome his paralyzing anger through a religious rebirth. Her typewritten letter of encouragement remains a spiritual inspiration: “…as I recall my “fantastic voyage” through the museum…I was almost speechless as I saw a “city” of statues…”
Move to Hammond, Louisiana
In 2000, the Kohler Foundation purchased over 400 sculptures from the Illinois site, and wanting to live closer to his ailing mother, Smith moved back towards New Orleans. He happened to stop for gas and food in Hammond (about 100 km north), where casual inquiries led him to the unnamed slave boy’s grave, and a feeling that the community badly needed an African-American Heritage Museum.
Processional carpeting off the bridge leads between the Slave of Hammond and the Self-Portrait monuments to the temple-like front extension of Smith’s home. Rounded figures in cement-plaster relief above the massive steps depict the ‘Great Migration’5 his family had joined in the 1940’s. Symbolized by a triangle, the Northstar apex – above an overseeing royal African ancestor – is the convergence point from a broad horizontal base (of Southern states) [slide 17]. The triangle is supported on the left by a standing figure representing the many “freedom fighters” of the Civil Rights Movement, and a mask-like “shield of faith” on the right. Symbolizing victims of Hurricane Katrina, four rows of plaintive heads emerge – as if they had pushed through from the inside – out of the eastern wall [slide 18] of Smith’s home. The height of the top row corresponds to the water level in New Orleans when people stranded in attics broke through to their roofs using axes. At night, hazy streetlight shadows of leafy branches sway over the faces like undersea flora.
Hundreds of about one-meter high figures surround the house [slide 19]: some wearing children’s clothing, some painted in solid neutrals or bright colors holding implements of their station. The effect is like a subversive Toy Story, where the once popular negro-caricatured ‘lawn jockey’ ornaments of manicured yards have become marauding urban satires of their relegated roles: in Constant Gardener [slide 20], for example, a subservient black man is objectified into a human plant stand. Heads, such as a meter-high black-faced minstrel Jesus with exaggerated white lips and green shag carpet hair [slide 21], are interspersed with the smaller figures.
The brown eyes of in-transit slaves have been replaced by aquamarine crystals [slide 22]:
“When [you’re] a slave and they bring you from the bottom of the ship, they pour water on you to wash all that filth and feces off of you…[you] look over the boat, all you see is blue…they tell [their] story in terms of reflection.”
Smith uses black eyes to represent the future never seen by murder victims, and the steel gray eyes of the wrongly incarcerated Scottsboro Boys6 [slide 23] symbolize colorless visions of their lives not lived.
Understanding the Past – Looking to the Future
Dr. Smith’s museum continues to grow more densely populated with the times His Ebola sculpture of an infant-bearing African woman holding a light fixture high in her other hand, memorializes the volunteer work of Doctors Without Borders [slide 25]. The ghostlike, brittle-limbed white figure of (an actual) six-year-old boy arrested for carjacking [slide 26] embodies the breakdown of family structure in This Generation. For a community frozen in the present, Dr. Smith diagnoses the wisdom of history, and he envisions his site becoming a public museum. Carrying the potential to radiate with new understanding, he considers Sankofa [slide 27], a seated, lamp-crowned figure with back to back faces to be:
“one of [his] most important pieces…sankofa is a Swahili word which means interpretation…because without the knowledge of the past, you’re lost at this present time, you’re heading toward the future on a death wagon…You can’t look forward until you look back to where you have been.”
(1) Condoleezza Rice served as the first African-American female U.S. Secretary of State from 2005–2009.
(2) Through much of the twentieth century, adult African-American men were commonly referred
to as “boys”.
(3) from Wikipedia: Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American
teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white
(4) Stone, Lisa: “Dr. Charles Smith: house calls” from: Immersive Life Practices, Chicago:
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2014. Edited by Daniel Tucker.
(5) from Wikipedia: The Great Migration was the movement of 6 million African-Americans out of the
rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West that occurred
between 1910 and 1970. Blacks moved from 14 states of the South, especially Alabama,
Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.
(6) from Wikipedia: The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers falsely accused in Alabama of
raping two White American women on a train in 1931.