In her cottage near Claymont, Del., Pauline Young stores stacks of scrapbooks and albums that record the accomplishments of black people as early as 1800. Boxes bulge with memorabilia, including letters signed by historic figures such as Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall.
These three people are among the unofficial record-keepers of black culture. At considerable cost, both in time and money, they have painstakingly searched out hidden jewels of black history - obscure letters and books, old documents and photos. Over decades, some of their collections have become not only vast, but invaluable.
"These self-styled historians have veritable treasures which really are priceless," said Eleanor Engram, executive director of Cleveland's African American Museum, which was founded by Flewellen.
While applauding the work of these private collectors, Engram and other professionals who work to preserve and exhibit black history express concern about the preservation and cataloguing of these artifacts. They worry that, without proper care, the images on the photographs will fade and the paper records disintegrate. And they fear that many of the items, stored in file folders, boxes and crates, are vulnerable to fire.
"Their houses are often tinder boxes waiting for a match," said Engram.
But the chances of preserving the life's work of private black historians are slim. Many are now elderly and on fixed incomes; they hardly can afford to protect their holdings. African-American museums, logical places to receive the collections, say they have no room to house them.
The collectors themselves are often not eager to part with their troves.
Young, who has donated parts of her collection in the past, says black memorabilia is too often stored away once it is acquired by museums or colleges. "I want somebody to take these things, but I don't want them to take them and tie them up with a yellow ribbon and then put them away," said Young. "I want people to be able to use them."
So they go on, clipping and pasting, collecting and storing - and their treasures go, for the most part, unseen and unappreciated.
Here, as Black History Month draws to a close, are the stories of three people who have made preserving the record of black people's accomplishments their life's work.
Icabod Flewellen was a 13-year-old with a "smart mouth" when he began catching snakes for a snake venom salesman in Mannington, W. Va. Back then, snake venom was all-purpose medicine.
One day, he heard his boss talking about African kings. "I told him that blacks ain't never done sugar," recalled Flewellen.
The man took the youngster aside and told him of the great black kings and queens of Africa. At that moment, a passion took hold in Flewellen's life.
He began to seek out as much information as he could on black people - a quest that became easier when he got a job baling newspaper. He devoured the papers for stories about blacks and clipped them out.
"I found that I loved it," said Flewellen, at 72 a robust man with a booming voice.
He was so hungry for information that he became a carrier for the Pittsburgh Courier, then a prominent black newspaper. And he began a lifetime of travel that would take him to the great libraries of Europe, to conferences in the Soviet Union, to ancestral lands in Africa.
In 1945, Flewellen moved to Cleveland, where his family had relocated. There, while working as a messenger for the Veterans Administration, he collected such artifacts as an early gas mask and one of the first traffic
lights, both invented by Garrett Morgan, a black resident of Cleveland.
By 1953, his collection had grown so huge that Flewellen opened a museum in his basement. He called it the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society, later renamed the Afro-American Historical Museum and Research Library. It is considered the first African-American museum in the nation.
With donations, Flewellen moved his museum to larger quarters in 1967; in order to be eligible for grant money, the museum was incorporated as a nonprofit institution and trustees were named.
In the late 1980s, the board hired Engram as director, saying that Flewellen could no longer properly manage the museum.
Flewellen and the museum he founded parted company. But he left behind only some of his acquisitions and records, having kept others in his house all along.
Not even Flewellen can estimate the wealth of his collection. But there is hardly a topic - black inventors, black Catholics, blacks in sports - that cannot be found in folders thick with yellowed and crumbling clippings.
Flewellen, who never married, is still clipping. Tall stacks of newspapers await his scissors.
He lives on a pension, most of it spent on necessities - and newspapers and books. Several times his house has been vandalized; mice prey on his paintings and clippings.
"I'm trying to get a grant to get some acid-proof boxes," he said. "I would like to find a proper place to donate a lot of it, but I can't find any archive that is ready, willing and able."
He said he would like to be associated with a university, as Philadelphia historian Charles Blockson has done with Temple University.
A niece has promised to help him catalogue his collections, but she lives out of town. Meanwhile, he prays.
"Black people have done so much. Don't ever let anyone tell you different. I had to do this because I value our contributions. Now I just need someone to help me find somebody that will take this."
In 1947, Pauline Young wrote the first comprehensive history of black people in Delaware - a mission she undertook because, as she once wrote, the omission of blacks from state history books "symbolizes the complete rejection of the Negro and their accomplishments in Delaware."
Now 91, a retired librarian in Ardencroft, Young has always been an avid collector."I grew up with books and teachers. There was nothing for me to do but to collect."
She lifted the corner of the cloth covering a living room table and pointed to boxes brimming with clippings. Nearby were bookshelves collapsing under the weight of huge scrapbooks and photo albums.
"I'd like to see this stuff appreciated because it is a tribute to people who did so much," she said. "But every time I've tried to do that, people didn't use my stuff properly."
In 1976, Young donated several boxes of black memorabilia to Howard High School in Wilmington, once the state's only black high school, where Young was a librarian for 30 years. She donated original manuscripts by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, theater programs from all-black touring troupes, clippings
from the Afro-American newspapers.
The school opened the Pauline Young Memorabilia Room in the old school building's library - then kept it locked except by appointment. "Nobody could see the stuff," Young said sadly.
In 1985, she sold her collection of letters between Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Young's aunt. She also allowed researchers access to the private diaries of her aunt, a writer and civil-rights activist.
She often has tried to stop collecting, she said, but she cannot bear to
throw away things that may one day serve as proof of the contributions of black Americans.
Young began collecting history because she was a part of it.
When she was growing up in Wilmington's East Side, the daughter of a teacher, it was nothing for the poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes to drop by her home.
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, where she studied library sciences, Young greeted Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. And she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, Ala.
She was a longtime chairwoman of the Delaware state conference of the NAACP and a well-known fighter for civil rights, especially in education. She joined the Peace Corps in 1962 and spent nearly two years in Jamaica.
At 91, and 98 pounds, she has lost none of her spunk or drive.
Twice she has flown to Clark University in Atlanta, in an attempt to persuade school officials to mount a permanent exhibit of her collection. So far, no progress.
"I want this stuff out of here. I am so afraid of a fire. But what can I do? I can hardly move it myself . . .," she said. "But there is too much here for it to go to waste. Somewhere there is some school which can show the world what we have done."
The Rev. DeGrandval Burke's house is not cluttered - but only because his wife insists that he keep his "junk" in two back rooms.
Mr. Burke, 81, lives near James C. Smith University, the historic, predominantly black college where he taught philosophy and religion for many years.
It was in the classroom, in the early '70s, that Mr. Burke found his passion. He asked his students to tell him the history of their churches and was astounded when most were unable to.
Later he found that even the historic black churches in Charlotte had kept few records.
Setting out to correct this negligence, he stumbled onto a more important project. Many black churches in the city and its suburbs were originally built in a section of Charlotte known as Brooklyn - at one time, the only neighborhood where black people were permitted to live.
For 100 years, Brooklyn was the center of black religious and social life, and the site of the only secondary school open to black students, Second Ward High School.
In the '60s, urban renewal claimed the entire area.
Burke began collecting memorabilia about the area from older residents, including photographs, school programs, church records. He pored over government and agency records, and conducted interviews with old Charlotte
families and Second Ward High alumni.
Children today "can learn about black people like Frederick Douglass but they need to know about their local history as well," he said.
In 1978, Mr. Burke put together a book of historic photos of Brooklyn - photos of the barber shop, of the social halls and of the Black Cats, a club of elegant black men who threw an annual ball; portraits of the mighty black deacons, the first black police officers and the powerful black lawyers.
Mr. Burke had 1,000 copies printed, and all were snapped up by Charlotte residents. In 1981, he published a history of the Catawba Presbytery, a movement of black Presbyterian churches. He also documented the history of Charlotte's black churches.
"It was an amazing thing that he did," said Pat Rycman, of the Charlotte- Mecklenburg Public Library.
Moved by his accomplishment and aware that library archives contained no photographic records of blacks in Charlotte, Rycman last month invited black
families to bring their photographs to be copied for the archives and, eventually, a book.
Mr. Burke, however, is seeking a black-controlled institution to permanently house his records.
Vanessa Greene, director of Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center, said, "We don't have room for it here. But we are hoping to establish somewhere to house it, perhaps at a nearby university."
Mr. Burke said he and other private historians were motivated by this realization that blacks had to preserve their own history:
"Time has shown that our accomplishment, our history . . . is often ignored as unimportant. But everything we do is important. Nobody paid me to do this. I did it because it is important."