Collector Robert Green lived between ages 10 and 20 in Pruitt-Igoe, and he used to think that those were his formative years. Now he’s realizing that the real influence came earlier, when he’d hike downtown by himself from the North Side. He spent hours staring at huge murals in a high-ceilinged “art museum” (it was the Old Post Office) and poring over The History of West Africa at the library, which seemed like a history museum, bookstore, and art museum all in one.
“It felt like something I wasn’t part of and I wanted to be part of,” he says.
That feeling outlasted the challenges. “Pruitt-Igoe was a world all to itself, and if you knew only that world, you would think it was the whole world,” he says.
Green spent his school years staring at the Arch through his classroom window. Senior year at Vashon High School, he buckled down, and went on to become an electrical engineer. At IBM, surrounded by tech, he realized how much he loved old things—apothecary bottles, carnival canes, daguerreotypes. As he collected, he found a focus: early vernacular photos of everyday African-Americans in St. Louis.
It was easy to find cruel caricatures or harsh news photos, but Green wanted portraits that captured his people’s dignity. So he dug through estate sales and antique shops for sepia photos of dapper gentlemen with walking sticks and women in starched dresses, their hands folded in their laps, stroking a dove or clutching freedom papers.
The jewel of his collection is Frederick Douglass’ carte de visite, which Douglass pulled from his pocket to give to George Boyer Vashon and which came to Green through the Vashon family. In front of the glass dome protecting the tiny photo card, an early edition of My Bondage and My Freedom lies open, an antique iron key resting on its frontispiece because, Green explains, books are the key to knowledge. Ambrotypes, tintypes, albumen prints, Josephine Baker posters, West African masks, and Green’s own paintings cover every wall.
“People used to walk in and say, ‘Man, you are running a museum here,’” he says. So now he is: the Frederick A. Douglass Museum of African-American Vernacular Images, because Douglass believed that images could uplift African-Americans, giving their true image to the world.
“It’s a living history museum,” Green says, “not just because I’m living here, but because it narrates the story of people who came to this area.”
In 2013, he started the St. Louis African-American Arts Festival and Bazaar, held in Crown Square Plaza every August. He wants young people to stumble upon history and culture in the way he did. So he invites them in and works with museums and libraries to bring exhibits. Green uses the rest of the year to plan the festival and curate the museum.
At dawn every morning, he walks 3 miles to the Arch. “I reflect on the past,” he says, “and I think about the future.”
By Jeannette Cooperman, St.Louis Magazine
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