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A trove of black life

Times Staff Writer

For 20 years, Oran Z. Belgrave has been looking for that box. It’s the one the first black G.I. Joe doll came in back in the mid-1960s. He’ll pay $200 when he finds it. But that’s it -- really it. Belgrave isn’t looking to buy more things.

His obsession with collecting African American-themed antiques and memorabilia has consumed the better part of his life, and now, Belgrave said, “I have to hold myself down.” His place is so crammed, a person can barely walk through it. His grown children don’t want the stuff. As for his wife -- “Don’t go there,” he said, shaking his head. He promised her he’d stop.

He definitely means it. Just a few more things -- that box, for instance. Oh, and a Herb Jeffries cowboy holster. . . .

Belgrave runs one of the city’s more low-profile yet distinctive institutions: the Oran Z Pan African Black Facts & Wax Museum on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the Crenshaw district. A collector’s collector, he has amassed an enormous and eclectic array: Joe Louis boxing gloves, a Jacob Lawrence art print, the bloodstained hood of a Ku Klux Klansman from the 1930s, wax figures of black notables.

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Now approaching retirement, Belgrave, 56, is weighing giving his treasures to institutions that will preserve them for posterity. Yet he finds himself hesitating.

Turning artifacts over to someone else is difficult for a man whose mission has been to counter someone else’s version of black history. Edited versions. Distorted versions. Versions that gloss over the painful, the contradictory, the frivolous.

Belgrave’s museum is a place where wax figures of athletes Jackie Robinson and O.J. Simpson stand side by side, where old Black Panther newspapers take up floor space along with Working Woman Barbie. There’s LeVar Burton’s jacket from the TV show “Reading Rainbow,” iron slave collars, curling irons from the 19th century. An innocuous bottle of Sylvia’s hot sauce with a smiling black female chef on the label shares a display with demeaning “Mammy” flour sacks. There are “I Am a Man” signs from the 1963 March on Washington, lawn jockeys and Wheaties cereal boxes with golf champ Tiger Woods on the front.

“I wanted a museum that was unbiased -- that lets people see it all and think what they want,” Belgrave said: the “positive and negative” of black history.

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A hairstylist, Belgrave has reddish brown eyes under blotches of eyebrows, long brown braids and a gray mustache that curves around his mouth. He wears a large gold “Z” on a chain around his neck and colorful djellaba robes; and he talks in a lively, discursive style, hopping from subject to subject, his mind seemingly as crowded as his museum.

His path to antiquing, like much of the black history he documents, is a story of resourcefulness against the odds. Belgrave grew up in Omaha, where he opened his first hair salon, dealing antiques on the side.

He invented Oran’s Wonder Weave, a hair-bonding product, and other shampoos and elixirs. But others took credit for his products, his fortunes dived and a divorce drove him to abandon his first museum in Omaha and move to Los Angeles 12 years ago.

Belgrave endured a brief stint of homelessness, living in an abandoned Jamaican restaurant on Santa Barbara Plaza, he said. But he still had a cellphone, and his contacts continued to seek him out.

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“I had to keep moving around the parking lot to get a signal,” he recalled. He built his hair businesses back up and began acquiring things again.

White and wealthy people tend to dominate the world of antiques collecting, said Walter Miller, chief executive of the College for Appraisers in Cypress. But Belgrave’s talent has propelled him.

“He really does know value,” Miller said of Belgrave’s collection, which includes “wonderful pieces of history . . . things that would have been garbage. The culture should honor people like that.”

Honoring his singular vision has taken every ounce of Belgrave’s independent spirit -- and cautions him against trusting it to others.

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He once assembled a Black History Month exhibit for a post office in his native Nebraska. In a glass display case, next to an Ebony magazine cover of Stevie Wonder, he propped a record album -- Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Postal management removed the album from the display case because the pop singer was facing molestation allegations at the time. But Belgrave believed that Jackson’s story was significant to black history and that “Thriller” belonged in the exhibit. So he sneaked another copy of the album into the display case. Management again removed it.

Belgrave values artifacts of black achievement. He is piqued by how few people seem to know that a black man invented the spark plug, or that Alexandre Dumas, author of the “The Three Musketeers,” was the grandson of a black Caribbean slave.

“As a child, I’d been taught that blacks had made no significant contributions,” he said. “So I didn’t really want to be black.”

But in addition to tributes to black success, Belgrave has also scoured the country for racist decorations and products -- humiliating porcelain figures of black men on toilets and postcards of black children being eaten by alligators. He has a collection of original recordings of white supremacist songs sung by choruses of Klansmen. Belgrave bought the recordings one by one over the Internet, careful to guard his identity from the sellers.

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His acquisitions stir conflicting emotions, for him as well as others.

“Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes not,” he said of the racism evident in many items. “Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes not. Sometimes both at the same time.”

Belgrave is afraid to display some of it but does anyway, invoking a quote he learned in Ghana: “Until the lions learn to write, the tale of the hunt is told by the hunter.”

Little by little, Belgrave has begun to distribute his acquisitions. He said he has provided a collection for an African American history museum in Blythe, Calif., and his son is starting a museum in Omaha. Belgrave also helps teachers compile exhibits and displays and gives tours of his museum by appointment.

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But with a score of other projects before him, and burdened with the demands of his hair business, Belgrave finds time running through his fingers. His treasures are piled on the floor or stashed out of sight -- captive to his hard-won independence and the conundrum of black history expropriation they memorialize.

Belgrave points to a stack of Black Panther newspapers on the floor. “Another Victim of Pig Guns,” reads the headline on top, dated Oct.18, 1969. But he’s afraid to touch the papers because they’re so yellowed and brittle. He needs a professional to preserve them, he said.

Another chore for the list. Belgrave moves into another room and surveys a pile of dolls.

“I’m hoping I can get it together before I die,” he murmurs.

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jill.leovy@latimes.com


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