Randolph Burns, who makes his living tracking down memorabilia for clients, couldn’t believe his eyes.
Here he stood in the midst of one man’s never-exhibited collection of thousands of out-of-print books, paintings, letters, photographs, movie posters, toys, comic books, advertisements and other odds and ends, all of them produced by or chronicling the lives of blacks during the last two centuries.
“Every time I thought I’d seen something impressive, there’d be something else,” Burns said. “It was like the man said: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ ”
This was Burns’ introduction to “The Montague Collection,” the lifetime obsession of a 60-year-old former disc jockey who calls himself, simply, Montague.
Burns was awe-struck to see memorabilia he had heard about but never expected to see, like an extremely rare book of poems by Phyllis Wheatly, a slave who became a published author in the 1770s; a painting by George Washington Carver, made with paints created from peanut oils, one of hundreds of byproducts from peanuts and sweet potatoes that Carver invented to revolutionize the economy of the South, and the 1868 book “Behind the Scenes,” written by another former slave, Elizabeth Keckley, who after working as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker wrote a devastating portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln’s emotional chaos in the White House.
Value Matter of Debate
Art and literary critics may quarrel about the value of the objects that Montague keeps stored in 6,000 square feet of warehouse space. What is undisputed is that he has amassed a remarkably broad collection that seems to touch on every aspect of black American life. Beyond the books and paintings, it ranges from personal letters of famous blacks to slavery documents to lobby cards of 1930s black films to posters advertising minstrel shows to copies of 1920s All-Negro Comics, featuring the character Ace Harlem.
There is a Greek mythological painting with black characters by Harlem artist Frank Sapp. There are 19th-Century engravings of the upper crust of Angola and Mozambique. There is a tiny, elegant pincushion with an engraving of a black man in chains, called “A Colored Man in the City of New York,” made in 1835 by Patrick Henry Reason, a black artist who worked for Abolitionists.
There is famed black educator Mary McLeod Bethune’s autograph on a postcard with a first-day-issue George Washington Carver stamp. There are a slew of photographs taken on the sets of black silent films made by George P. Johnson, who ran Lincoln Motion Pictures on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue. There is a 1920s Colliers magazine cover of a white toddler trying to paint a black toddler’s face with white paint.
Collection of 5,000 Items
In all, Montague figures that he has amassed about 5,000 items. If you had asked him to estimate the size of the collection two years ago, he would have been stuck for an answer. He and his wife, Rose Casalan, had just sold a radio station they owned in Palm Springs and moved to West Los Angeles to plan another station acquisition. Montague’s collection was not well organized. The only catalogue, Montague said, was the one in his head.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen if you drop dead?’ He was right. Only I knew what I had.”
Montague and Casalan have spent the last two years cataloguing and filing. Each piece of the collection was entered in an elaborate volume of indexes. Each picture was framed. Each book was bound in leather. Everything was transferred from a storage warehouse in Yucaipa to one in El Monte. A representative sample was arranged in a museum-like setting, shown to a selected audience (including Mayor Tom Bradley) and elaborately videotaped in six 22-minute segments.
To Burns, who met Montague four years ago during one of Montague’s memorabilia searches, the result “isn’t just a museum collection, it’s a reference library. It’s greater than any public collection of its type.”
Montague’s goal is to find a corporation interested in purchasing the whole collection and sponsoring its display across the country. He said he cannot afford to simply donate the collection, nor does he want it restricted to one museum, such as the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles.
‘I Want Them Shown’
“I want these works to be seen,” Montague said, “by everyone. This isn’t just for blacks, this is for all Americans. People say that blacks were ignored in history, but this collection shows that they did write, and that they were written about, and that they were drawn, and shown as part of American culture. This isn’t a political statement. This is history.”
Montague grew up in New York with little awareness of that history. He got the collecting bug in the early 1960s through a friend who sought out rare books. Montague began to do the same, haunting Greenwich Village’s rare-book stores. Gradually he began developing his own bibliography of books he wanted to find. He bought hundreds, then thousands. (His collection includes 3,000 out-of-print books.) Then he turned to magazines. Then to a wide range of “collectibles.” Then paintings.
“I got the fever,” he said.
“What a fever,” said Casalan, who has been married to Montague for 33 years. “That’s what he’d spend his Saturday afternoons doing. I sat in the car. I was too tired.”
In 1965, Montague moved to Los Angeles to become the morning deejay for KGFJ, the city’s leading black-oriented radio station. He brought with him an expression he shouted each time he played a record that he loved--"Burn, baby, burn!” To his dismay, it was picked up by many who participated in that summer’s Watts Riots. Soon the chant was a national symbol of urban rebellion.
In 1967, Montague left the station to pursue a record-producing career. He kept collecting. He turned a room of his Bel-Air home into a library. In the 1970s, he and his wife began to fly to Europe in search of paintings and other memorabilia.
European collections offered a wealth of images that are harder to find in this country. For one thing, there were more rare paintings, a testament to Europeans’ fascination with American and African blacks. For another, there were more pre-World War II American-made toys, cartoons and other artwork that featured blacks, usually portraying them as fun-loving, childlike people who spoke in exaggerated dialect. In the United States the argument over whether such memorabilia reinforces demeaning racial stereotypes or is a valid representation of history has gone on for decades.
To Montague, it is a non-issue.
“Blacks have played the same role as whites--slapstick, buffoons, preachers--everybody’s made fun of,” he said. He gestured to an old cartoon of a skinny black woman named Miss Kinks. “Hey,” he said, “her hair was kinky. What would you have us do? Just doctors, lawyers, they don’t make an entire culture. What is derogatory is in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t preach. I collect.”
He does so with unabashed zeal. It shows in his thrill at holding an 1884 book by famed black Abolitionist Sojourner Truth, his surprise at skimming through a 1928 issue of Farm and Fireside magazine--no rarity in itself--and finding a piece on Carver, his reverence at Sapp’s huge painting of Haitian Gen. Toussaint L’Ouverture astride a horse, which hangs in the living room of his West Los Angeles apartment.
Listen to him tell the story of how he found the pincushion engraving by Reason, a work he had long craved.
“I’d go into different dealers, and they didn’t know who I was talking about. I finally found it at an estate sale. They didn’t even know he was black. I didn’t tell them how badly I wanted it. I played it cool. How much is it worth? It’s priceless! Reading history is one thing but owning it, looking at it. . . . When I found that pincushion. . . . “
He held his hand to his head.
” . . . There are no words,” he said.