'We have to confront it:' Former Viking, Minnesota Supreme Court justice Page wants to display collection of Jim Crow-era artifacts and memorabilia to wider audience
MINNEAPOLIS—Alan Page can't recall if the sign read "White Drinking Fountain" or "Colored Drinking Fountain." He just remembers he was stunned.
In the summer of 1965, Page was 20 years old and entering his junior year at Notre Dame. Page was working a construction job while staying with his sister Marvel in Washington, D.C.
Page had grown up in Canton, Ohio, and had heard plenty about Jim Crow laws that were most prevalent in the South. But he hadn't seen stark evidence until he and his sister stopped at a store outside Annapolis, Md., on their way to a beach.
"It was just a shock to the senses seeing my first 'Colored Only' or 'Whites Only' sign,'' Page said. "I knew they existed, but to see that first one in person, it was definitely an eye-opener."
Now 72, the legendary defensive tackle with the Vikings and former associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court says that experience played a role in his decision to attend law school and help fight for civil rights. In 1988, Alan and his wife, Diane, began putting together an extensive collection related to the African-American experience.
The collection on display throughout their home is a difficult but important reminder of what the United States has overcome and what it still faces.
"We tend to think that what's happening is new, and I think what we see in this collection is that it isn't new," said Alan Page. "It has been going on since really the beginning of the nation."
Throughout the Pages' spacious home in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis are jolting artifacts connected directly to the slave trade, the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist Jim Crow laws that took root after the Civil War. There is a slave collar, a branding iron and plantation records listing the names, ages and prices of human property.
There are Ku Klux Klan dolls and a framed 1897 collection of photographs of African-American babies labeled "Alligator Bait." There are signs from railroad cars identifying seating areas for whites and for blacks.
There are inspiring pieces, as well, such as a Jackie Robinson doll, a Rosa Parks ceremonial cookie jar and beautiful artwork of African-Americans going about their daily lives.
With the nation rocked by last month's violence in Charlottesville, Va., and debating whether monuments to the Confederacy should be removed, the Pages want their collection to be seen by a large audience. They are working with a curator to find a venue in Minnesota, preferably a college, to exhibit their items.
The potential exhibit has a name: "Testify. Americana. Slavery to Today. The Collection of Diane & Alan Page.''
"The items are actual items that were used and are a part of that history," Page said. "Whether it's a slave collar or Ku Klux Klan dolls, they show what this country was like and what the majority did to the minority, and those are things that we should never allow to be forgotten."
'CHALLENGING TO LIVE WITH'
"In order to heal the deep wounds of our present, we must face the truth of our past," reads a quote from the website Lynching in America, established by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Diane Page said that sums up the Pages' desire to exhibit their collection, which she started in 1988.
"We had Andy Warhol on the walls," said Diane Page. "A friend came to our home and she said, 'Where is all the African art history for your children?' I said, 'I don't know where it exists,' and I was just clueless. Then she brought over two or three books from Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet, and his books were very beautiful."
Diane Page acquired some books by Dunbar, who lived from 1872 to 1906, and then began accumulating additional items.
"The early pieces were more memorabilia, more or less, like the classic cookie jar shaped like Rosa Parks," said daughter Georgi Page, who was 18 in 1988. "They were depicting African-American heroes and everyday objects. Then it became more about the history.
"Some of it was more challenging to live with around us than others, but it definitely opened our eyes," she said of herself and her three siblings. "It was definitely a learning experience. ... It became a real labor of love for both my parents, and building up this collection speaks to their life-long dedication to civil rights."
Diane Page spent two decades accumulating more than a thousand artifacts. For the past decade, she hasn't been adding to the collection because the Pages have run out of room in the home and she said her income has been reduced since she retired.
She said her salary as a market research consultant helped pay for the collection, so her husband "didn't quibble about it.''
He often joined his wife when they went to antique sales throughout the country seeking items from African-American history. He was there in suburban Chicago about 20 years ago when they located his favorite piece.
It is a large canvas sign made following the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It reads on one side, "Uncle Abe We Will Not Forget You'' and on the other "Our Country Shall Be One Country!''
"When Alan first saw that, he kind of teared up," Diane Page said. "It's a funeral banner from when Abraham Lincoln's funeral train was on the Eastern Seaboard on its way to Illinois, and a family in New Hampshire made this sign ... and came down and held it and waved to the train."
The price was high, and Alan figured they couldn't buy it. But Diane went back to the owners and arranged to pay it off in three installments so her husband could be surprised at Christmas.
"Other than (son) Justin, who was born in December 1974, I think it's right at the top," said Alan Page. "That would be my best (Christmas gift) ever."
'WE HAVE TO CONFRONT IT'
The sign is prominently on display in the Pages' living room. Other items there include a $1.37 receipt for a "slave lash" purchased in the 1830s and advertisements for a 1930 "Colored auto race" in Akron, Ohio, and a Georgia "colored fair" in 1914.
There is a White House brick made by a slave in the 1790s, removed when the White House was reconstructed from 1949-51. Before being acquired by Diane, it was being used as a bookend.
Old household items on display include Negro Head Oysters and Darkie Toothpaste. A painting depicting African-Americans at a public swimming pool in Pasadena, Calif., in 1940 is entitled "Only on Thursday."
"The name comes from the fact that blacks only were allowed to swim in the pool on Thursday because they cleaned it Friday morning," Alan Page said of the pool, which was integrated in 1944. "It's just stunning that you would have a pool that would let certain groups of people use it only before you clean it."
"Those objects in the Pages' collection that are most difficult to look at — instruments of white supremacy — speak most urgently to the conflicts and tensions in America today," said Laura Joseph, a curator at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, who is working with the Pages on the exhibit. "We would like to imagine that these things are relics of an inert past — or at least of Southern outliers. We want to hope that if we avert our gaze from them, they'll cease to mean something about who we are as Americans."
Asked to name an item not on display in the home because it's too overpowering, Page mentioned a Ku Klux Klan robe stored in the basement, which he says would be "difficult to look at" on a daily basis.
During his time on the Minnesota Supreme Court, Page often put Jim Crow-era items from the collection on display in the chambers as a reminder of what U.S. society once tolerated. He wonders now whether the nation has taken a step backward.
"Really, what we're seeing today is a resurgence of hateful, racist activism that we sort of thought we'd put behind us," he said.
Page believes President Donald Trump's administration is one reason for that resurgence.
"The current administration has played to people's worst fears and has played to people's racial insecurities," he said. "One of the President's most senior advisers (chief strategist Steve Bannon, fired Aug. 18) came to his campaign and then to the administration by way of a news outlet (Breitbart) that promoted white supremacy, and he's back there now.
"The nation's chief law enforcement officer (attorney general Jeff Sessions) is an individual whose record on Civil Rights leaves a great deal to be desired. ... Did I ever think we'd ever see a day like today? No."
Page criticized Trump for saying "both sides" shared blame in Charlottesville. The statement, Page said, created an "equivalency between those who support white supremacists and those who oppose it." The unrest took a deadly turn when a man linked to white supremacist groups rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19.
"The hate that would engender somebody to drive a car into a crowd wouldn't even have been on my radar (as something that could happen)," Page said.
Page was asked what he would say if he ever met Trump.
"I would be inclined not to want to talk to him," Page said. "He's my age, roughly. He is who he. ... He knows what he's doing. This is who he is. You can talk to him forever and you'd probably get more reaction out of the paint on the wall."
Trump has tweeted it would be sad and foolish to take down monuments of Confederate war heroes because "you can't change history." Page believes they should be removed because they honor those who fought to protect slavery and "committed treason" by trying to secede from their own country.
"I understand that the argument might be, 'Well, they are our ancestors,' " Page said. "Well, maybe so, but it's still no reason to honor them."
Page believes there is a difference between artifacts in the family collection and Confederate monuments. The former, he said, are "timepieces" from an era that show what was going on at the time. The monuments were put up later to "glorify" the Confederacy and those who fought for slave owners.
Now more than ever, Page said, the time is right for the collection at his home to be seen by a wider audience.
"It puts in context what we're seeing today," he said. "We have to confront it. We have to have conversations about it."