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Brian Breye dies at 79; chronicled a tormented history at L.A.'s Museum in Black

For Brian Breye, the Museum in Black was a labor of love.

In the front room, he displayed his collection of African masks, intricate carvings and ornate statuary.

In the back room, there were slave manacles, a framed photo of a lynching, "Whites Only" signs from the segregated South, figurines of grinning railroad porters, jars shaped like stereotypical mammies, and vintage labels for products like Pickaninny Freeze ice cream and Uncle Remus syrup, complete with the face of a smiling black man declaring, "Dis sho' am good!"

Sometimes visitors took offense at the relics — and Breye agreed with them.

"I find them to be very offensive," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. But, he said, it would have been more offensive to keep a tormented history under wraps. Young people, he said, "may never even know that it did exist … I think we fail to look back into the past, and we fail to say to ourselves, 'Never again.'"

Breye, who kept his Leimert Park museum afloat for four decades but finally had to close it in 2005 for lack of funds, died Aug. 3 in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 79.

Breye had cancer, his friend Edna Johnson said.

Johnson volunteered at the museum and brought her children there after school almost daily. Like others, she called Breye "baba" — a term for "father" in Swahili and other languages. Breye's museum became a local meeting spot, and Breye became known as "the mayor of Leimert Park" — a fatherly figure with a passion both for world history and for his neighborhood.

A grandmaster in shotokan karate, Breye ran a dojo and trained probation officers in self-defense. He sold an occasional piece from his collection and rented objects to studios for movie sets, but he never charged admission at Museum in Black.

"One week I have steak and potatoes, another week nothing but potatoes," he once said.

Tesnim Hassan, a Chicago respiratory therapist, dropped in to the museum when she was growing up in the largely African American neighborhood.

"I came to know him the way so many others did," she said in an interview. "I came and I stayed."

The museum opened her eyes to a history she wasn't learning in class, said Hassan, who, as a teenager, guided visitors through the exhibits.

She recently asked Breye whether he knew she was ditching school when she helped out.

"Yes," he said.

"Why did you let me?"

"Because you were doing something important."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 5, 1936, Breye had a rough childhood. He recalled being dressed by his mother in a white shirt, white shorts, white shoes and a bow tie before she left him in a foster home when he was 6 years old. He ran away frequently.

In his teens, he became a truck driver and later joined the military, serving in Korea and Japan.

After his military service, he traveled the U.S., sometimes on a motorcycle. At a thrift store in Mississippi, he bought an Uncle Tom doll, and later recalled the acquisition as the start of his collection.

In Los Angeles, he housed his growing trove in several spots before landing at his 3,000-square-foot space on Degnan Boulevard. One of his places was in the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, a once-fashionable hostelry that was at the epicenter of the African American community in South Los Angeles.

Over the years, he picked up plantation cooking pots, a set of church pews, a pre-Civil War property inventory that included "one Negro man Joe," and 5,000 other items that wound up on display at various times.

He also acquired African art, including ceremonial masks, an ornate Yoruba ritual garment known as an egungun, and a 12-foot wooden frame decorated with brightly painted antelopes that was hoisted overhead during tribal fertility festivals in Mali.

"It wasn't uncommon to show up there and see him haggling, bargaining and trading — sometimes jovially, sometimes not so jovially," Hassan said.

When riots ripped through Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King verdicts, Breye helped fight a fire at a nearby grocery store. Meanwhile, his neighbors stood watch over the stacks of items he had frantically removed from the museum and set in the middle of the street — rusted slave shackles, tribal masks, books, the remnants of history.

"Nothing was taken," he later told the Associated Press. "They were watched. Not one thing was stolen."

For years, Museum in Black was on the brink of closure.

"Occasionally, the lights would go off," Johnson said, "but we'd put together the money."

In 2005, a rent increase did the place in for good. Breye stored much of the collection and continued to show some of his pieces at talks in the community.

Breye never married, and a complete list of his relatives was unavailable.

A memorial celebration in Leimert Park has been set for Sept. 27 at 11 a.m.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

 

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