By Deanna Isaacs
Cars slow to a crawl, windows slide down, necks crane, eyes pop. The people inside strain toward a residential lawn at the corner of Kendall and North Avenue in Aurora. A thicket of black heads cranes back at them–wide-eyed, larger-than-life, meeting their gazes with an intensity that renders passersby as still as statues. From inside the crowd the sculptor Charles Smith waves. “People do this all the time,” he says. “Ridin’ by, wonderin’, ‘What is it? Is it a museum? Is he crazy?’ Come on in,” he shouts. “Welcome. This is the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archives.” The cars move on.
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Charles Smith heard the voice of God, and God had one word for him: art. Smith, a Vietnam vet, had lost his job as a rehab counselor and was feeling the cumulative pain and anger of a lifetime. “God said, ‘Use art. I give you a weapon,'” he recalls. “Just like he gave Dr. King the Gandhi strategy. And when he gave me that weapon, I weared it out. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, nonsleepin’, noneatin’.”
In 1986, Smith bought a small frame house on a big lot on the east side of Aurora and began his work, constructing a sculptor’s history of African America. He had never tried his hand at art before and had no training, but he collected pieces of wood and began to transform them into historical persons–faces and bodies that had come to him in visions. The carved and painted figures crowded out of the house and into the yard–captives on slave ships chained 18 inches apart, plantation slaves carrying their infants into the fields, a lineup of human guinea pigs from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. The yard gradually became his museum–thronged with hundreds of prisoners, runaways, and martyrs locked up, beaten down, decapitated by others or even, in desperation, by themselves. The leaders are there too: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan. There’s a memorial to Eric Morse, the five-year-old thrown to his death from the 14th floor of the Ida B. Wells housing project, another to whites who helped with the Underground Railroad, and another to the blacks who died in Vietnam. Faces are unique and expressive, bodies dynamic, limbs an apt marriage of woody origins and human gesture. And every piece has its own story. “People say when they come by here, it looks like a cemetery, and everybody’s standin’ up, holdin’ their own obituary,” Smith says.
Smith was once a minister, and when he talks about his museum he preaches–a sustained, spitfire sermon about the lack of appreciation for black history, the need to preserve and pass on the real record of black experience and contributions, and the trouble he’s having trying to do that. He wants to improve his place. If he had the money, he’d clean up the grounds, hire a staff, build a shelter for the sculptures, now subjected to the weather year-round. So far, his requests for grants have been unsuccessful: “When I’m dead, then everybody’ll come by, sponsored by the city of Aurora. ‘How great this is, what one man did.’ Why not now?”
The bureaucracies he’s approached for funding have told him to set up as a nonprofit. He’s not interested. “Why do I need all of that?” he asks. “I’ve already done all the work.” With one exception (a memorial to his sister), everything on his grounds is for sale. If someone wants to buy the entire place, that would be fine too. It’s a “folk-art-mecca gold mine,” he says. He’d let it go for three million. In the meantime, “every day there’s a piece of history made,” he says. “And every day there’s a piece of history that’s not written. This is a work to the glory of God, and them that died, and the generations to come.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Deanna Isaacs.