Why would a Chicago library collect racially insensitive art?

Christopher Borrelli

Christopher BorrelliContact ReporterChicago Tribune

In the early 1970s Edward Williams began buying racist images. He bought every one he came across. He bought so many that his wife began to complain about the clutter: What was he planning to do with all of this racist stuff? Sell it? Save it? Many of his finds were tchotchkes — racist tea cozies, racist candles, racist ceramic figurines — but soon he ran out of room to store new racist objects and switched to flatter paper items. Racist children’s books, sheet music. At the time Williams was an executive at Harris Bank. The first black man to work for the company, he had grown up on the South Side, above Lang’s Bar B Que on South Prairie; his mother cleaned homes and his father was a welder. Williams was at Harris for 40 years, moving up the ranks from teller supervisor to vice president. When he retired in 2004, he was a trustee at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The day he started gathering racist ephemera he wasn’t planning on it. He was browsing an antique store in central Indiana and noticed a small card in a gold frame.

“I saw it from the corner of my eye,” he said. “A caricature of a black man in a white clown costume, made to look grotesque. It sent chills down my spine. I was taken aback and I had to get out of there. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I decided I had to buy it — so that no one else could see it. I decided that I wanted it out of circulation.”

At first his mission was clear: He traveled the country as a kind of hobby, hitting every antique and memorabilia store he came across, removing from circulation every derogatory doll, postcard and whatnot he found. “But because of the range and depth of this stuff, that wasn’t realistic. I didn’t have enough money to save the world.” So he became discerning, an early aficionado of what many collectors, black and white, call “negrobilia,” 19th and 20th century memorabilia, often prosaic, casually racist items.

Williams and his wife, Ana, had a system: They would enter a store, he would take one aisle, she would take another aisle, then they would sweep the shelves, meeting in the back. Soon collectors recognized them, offering rarities stored beneath their counters. But after more than a decade, the collection grew unwieldy; once, while trying to sell their home, they rented a temporary apartment just to remove the collection from sight. They had more than 6,000 pieces. When Williams retired, his wife asked him to purge it.

So he did.

You can find the Edward Williams Collection today at the Stony Island Arts Bank, at East 68th Street and Stony Island Avenue, just south of Jackson Park. The building stands out on the strip as a reminder of when the block was booming. It is a large gray cube, a former Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, solid and imposing, and for the past couple of years, repurposed by the celebrated artist Theaster Gates as a library and art space.

The other day, on the third floor, a team of librarians and preservationists sat around two long tables, stacks of pieces from the Williams Collection waiting before them. They were members of the American Library Association, which was having its annual conference at McCormick Place; they worked at, among others, the University of Southern California, New York Public Library and Texas A&M University. For the past couple of years, depending on where the conference was held, they have identified a library that could use some help and expertise to properly store its collections and spent a day training the staff. Katherine Risseeuw, a preservation librarian at Northwestern University, explained that the goal at Stoney Island was “to slow the collection from breaking down,” to ensure “it’s properly stored so anyone in the community is able to access it.”

Table tops were wrapped in butcher paper. Boxes of white powder-free gloves and storage materials waited to be opened. There were archival “chemically stable enclosures” and soot erasers. There were “four-flap” envelopes that nuzzled books beneath manillalike origami. There were “micro-spatulas” for turning pages and “bone folders” for creasing. There was discussion of how to identify the “historical dirt” found on a piece from the everyday dirt. Maya Wallace, Stony Island’s exhibitions assistant, took notes the entire time. The Arts Bank holds several collections: The 15,000 books and magazines that make up the Johnson Collection (as in the late John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet); the 5,000 vinyl records that make up the Frankie Knuckles Collection.