Hey, Neighbor!Calvin Riley

Calvin Riley, African-American historian and educator
Photo by: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Calvin Riley turned a lifelong passion for collecting rare black Americana artifacts into the George B. Vashon African-American museum located in the historic St. Louis Place neighborhood he calls home. Riley is a St. Louis native, retired educator, and law enforcement official who began collecting black memorabilia as a hobby nearly 40 years ago. His museum's mission is to preserve the history and achievements of St. Louis African Americans and recognize those who fought for civil rights and to change unjust laws. Riley is a proponent of the Next NGA West project and says that this new facility near the museum is a blessing for his neighborhood.

What initially sparked your interest in collecting African American memorabilia, and are you still surprised that what started as a hobby would eventually grow to become a very unique museum?

My interest in collecting black Americana started while I was in college, but it got serious after an encounter at a flea market that was held at Kiel Auditorium. I met a serious local collector named Ed Orchard who stopped at my display table and asked how much I wanted for two black dolls that I was selling. I told him my sale price was $100 dollars each and he bought both on the spot.

Then he asked me if I knew what they were and I replied no. He informed me that they were highly collectable Vargas wax dolls crafted in the 19th century by the Spanish sculptor Francisco Vargas. Orchard asked me if I was aware of black memorabilia, and again I said no. He invited me to his home and showed me his collection of black memorabilia and that visit literally changed my life.

From that point forward I became a serious collector and began searching for black memorabilia artifacts in the midwest and on the east coast. Over the years, I've met many professional collectors who published books on black Americana. They became my friends and mentors. Little did I know that my hobby would eventually turn into what's become a notable museum for St. Louis and the bi-state area.

You credit your spouse for helping you launch this museum devoted to African-American history in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. Tell us about her.

My wife Calra pointed to a vacant three-story home at 2223 St. Louis Avenue and said that it would make a great museum. A wealthy Irish meat packer built the mansion in 1879 on what was then known as "Millionaire's Row." It's just a stone's throw from where the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will be built. This building has a long history; over the years it's been a funeral home and a church. It had fallen into disrepair and needed plenty of work when I bought it. Right after closing, I retired after 40 years as an English teacher and to start rehabbing the building, which took about 3 years to complete.

Initially I didn't have any formal museum experience, so I started visiting museums and institutions across the country to learn how they were organized. I wanted mine to be original and different, and that distinction adds to its appeal.

We have been open for three years now, and I frequently hear from museum professionals, curators, and college professors that this museum is unlike any other they have seen. A big reason for that is that I try to focus more on the historical contributions that many people of color have made to this community and preserve their memory so they won't be forgotten. Many of these artifacts tell a vivid story and are tangible connections to St. Louisans who made a difference. It's the things they lived with day-to-day, and this museum allows them to live forever. I'm often told by visitors that they are fascinated that they had never heard of many of the historically important people whose artifacts are on display here.

What's a "typical" day like for you at the museum? Are most of your day-to-day activities devoted to physically running the museum? Do you still devote time to getting out to locate more artifacts that may eventually wind up on display?

Each day here really varies. There are days where I'm conducting personal tours, and then there are days where I get calls to go look at items that people are thinking about selling. Sometimes these items are great finds that I can put on display right away, but many times they may be not be what I'm looking for. Many times people don't know what things are collectible. When you clean out homes, people throw things away, and they don't realize they're throwing away history.

I've learned that truly historical Items are very difficult to locate and source. I know where a lot of historical items are, but their owners haven't reached the point where they are willing to part with them. Patience is a virtue in this business, so if and when these owners make that decision to part with a unique item, I am always ready to step up and get it. Sometimes they are donated; other times I have to buy.

I also have a group of "pickers" — antique dealers — and they are always on the lookout for collectible items of interest to me. About eighty percent of the collections I have on display came directly from homes where they had been in use or saved by family members, and have never been on the market for sale.

What do you consider the most prized artifact in your museum and what's the story behind how you acquired it?

I consider the George B. Vashon collection my greatest find and a real historical treasure. Vashon was a pioneer and fought to improve education for African Americans. He was the first black graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and the first black professor at Howard University in Washington, DC. After Vashon's death in 1878, his family moved to St. Louis, where they played important roles in education and civic affairs.

A "picker" friend of mine was rummaging through the former Vashon family home in north city. The home had just been sold and was being cleaned out. The Vashon family items were stored in the basement in two large trunks. There was water damage to many of the items, but luckily many were salvageable. Initially I didn't realize how significant these items were, or for that matter who they belonged to. I did some extensive research and verified that they were indeed the belongings of George B. Vashon. After I had purchased and restored this collection of historical items, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a story about it.

That story generated inquiries, and offers to purchase this collection came from the Smithsonian, Oberlin University, and historical collectors from the Philadelphia area. Fortunately, several local historians encouraged me to keep the entire collection of Vashon artifacts right here, since the Vashon family had done so much for St. Louis during the 19th century.

I also have a personal connection to Lincoln Diuguid, whose life is celebrated in the museum. Diuguid was an African American scientist who refused to pass for white to make a career in science. There is a room in the museum with laboratory equipment from the Du-Good chemical company that Diuguid established on Jefferson Avenue to do research and produce household and personal products. Diuguid taught at Harris Stowe Teachers College for nearly 40 years, and I was one of his students. He also pushed hard to get the best out of his students. Great people like him are not well known. Their stories need to be told. That's what this museum does—it keeps their stories living.

As someone who has spent much of his life to preserving valuable history, what was your initial reaction when you learned about NGA's decision to build their new headquarters in your neighborhood? Is there a parallel in the fact that your future neighbor is an organization with its own unique history in St. Louis?

I know there are some of my neighbors who lost a part of their family history when their homes were purchased and demolished to make way for this project. I feel for them and their loss. But there were plenty of vacant lots and buildings here, too, and that needed to change. All in all, it is a blessing for the St. Louis Place neighborhood that NGA chose to build their new headquarters in this area. It was great timing for all concerned, and the contrast of historical ties between this museum and the building where it resides, along with the history of NGA, is a recipe for mutually beneficial success. When construction of the Next NGA West is completed, it will bring more people back to this neighborhood, which I'm hoping will result in more visitors to my museum.

The views presented are those of the participant interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or NGA, or any of their components. No endorsement is expressed or implied.

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Hey, Neighbor!Vernon Betts

Vernon Betts, St. Louis City Sheriff and St. Louis Place resident
Photo provided by: Vernon Betts

Lifelong St. Louisan Vernon Betts has lived in St. Louis Place more than 20 years, and is “excited, delighted and tickled to death” that NGA will build its new facility in his historic neighborhood. As the Sheriff for the City of St. Louis, he is responsible for the safety and security of 31 divisional courtrooms of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court and manages 173 sworn deputies. Betts believes that the future revitalization potential for his neighborhood is finally gaining momentum and that it’s long overdue.

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