Monday, November 13, 2006

Detroit Museum Accused of Letting Pages of History Fade

Detroit Free Press, November 11, 2006


Museum is accused of letting pages of history fade


Malcolm X, left, was the subject of a book bearing his
name by Alex Haley, right. Fifteen unpublished pages
were on display in Detroit. (PATRICIA BECK/Detroit
Free Press)

They are priceless pages of American history, 15
sheets of unpublished portions of Alex Haley's
original manuscript for "The Autobiography of Malcolm

And they are at the center of a messy legal dispute
that spilled into public view when the owner of the
papers sued Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of
African American History last week for damaging the
pages during the years they were displayed there.

"There is no rational explanation for what happened
here," Belleville attorney Francois Nabwangu said
Friday on behalf of his client, the Keeper of the Word
Foundation, a Michigan nonprofit owner of the pages
that sued in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Nabwangu said museum officials have refused to file an
insurance claim to reimburse the foundation for
$168,000 worth of damage to the documents, which were
appraised for $280,000 shortly before they went on
display in large glass cases at the museum's grand
opening in 1997.

Today, the pages -- which include Malcolm X's
unpublished 13-point plan for African Americans to
achieve true integration through economic, social and
political empowerment -- have turned from white to

Though still readable, the pages also bear a white
stripe from being held down by bands while on display
until about 2002.

Nabwangu said museum officials have offered only to
try to have the manuscript pages restored, which could
further damage them or shorten their lifespan.

Museum officials wouldn't discuss the controversy.

"The museum has no comment," spokesman Raymond Tate
said Friday after repeated calls to museum officials
went unanswered.

Officials at other museums nationwide refrained Friday
from talking publicly about the incident but expressed
amazement that a museum would jeopardize its
reputation by allowing valuable documents to be
damaged. They said the dispute might make it harder
for the Wright museum to borrow other African-American
historical treasures in the future.

"The rule of thumb in the museum world is that, when
you borrow someone else's property, you return it in
the same condition as you got it," one library
archivist said Friday.

Chai Lee, spokesman for the Art Institute of Chicago,
wouldn't comment on the Detroit controversy
specifically but said paper is extremely sensitive to

That's why his museum, which owns one of the nation's
largest and finest collections of Japanese woodblock
prints, displays pieces only three months a year --
and then only in extremely dim light.

"Paper is very sensitive to light, and that is why
many of our print and drawing collections aren't on
view on a regular basis," Lee said.

Detroit entertainment lawyer Gregory Reed, who created
the Keeper of the Word Foundation in 1996 to preserve
African-American historical artifacts, said he
acquired Haley's manuscript at auction in 1992 for
$100,000. He also purchased three chapters of Haley's
work for $35,000, not realizing until five months
later that they were to have been part of the Malcolm
X book.

At that time, the acquisition marked the highest price
paid for an African-American manuscript in the 20th
Century. Reed said he went to the auction to buy other
Haley artifacts to preserve that history, not thinking
he would acquire the original manuscript.

Reed eventually gave the manuscript to the foundation,
which loaned 15 pages of the unpublished chapters to
the Detroit museum.

"Nobody else in the world has read the complete book
but me," Reed said, adding that he is amazed by his

Reed, a music collector who says he owns one of the
largest collections of Motown artifacts, recently
finished a one-year exhibit in Chicago at the DuSable
Museum of African American History, "100 Plus One:
Celebrating America's Music Before Motown and Beyond."

Reed said he originally planned to publish the three
chapters but got sidetracked handling legal affairs of
Detroit civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who died last

Even if the 15 damaged pages survive restoration, he
said, they would be less valuable.

"It's like trying to restore a cracked diamond," he
said. "They can seal the crack, but it's still a
damaged diamond."

Contact DAVID ASHENFELTER at 313-223-4490 or

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