The museum.
Folk art alligator protects the museum as real alligators protected runaway slaves in Louisiana swamps.

Dr. Charles Smith African-American Heritage Museum

Field review by the editors.

Hammond, Louisiana

Dr. Charles Smith knows that America needs his African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive. So he's built it twice.

Dr. Charles Smith.
Dr. Charles Smith.

Museum #1 was in Aurora, Illinois, started in the mid-1980s. "God led me to art," said Dr. Charles, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, who described himself as "nothing but a wall of hate" at the time.

"The spirit started speaking," said Dr. Charles. "'Art is the most powerful statement in the world when it's used to educate.' And I said, 'Wow!' And that's how it happened."

The words "museum," "archive," and even "doctor," are unconventionally deployed by Dr. Charles, who may or may not have a doctorate degree and whose museum and archive are in fact the yard of his house, packed solid with sculptural art.

Wall of faces.
Wall of Faces represents victims of Hurricane Katrina. The roof line is the high water mark of the flood.

It was that way in Aurora, too, until the Kohler Foundation swept in, bought all the statues, and transformed Dr. Charles into a gallery-exhibited, officially recognized folk artist.

Bust of Dr. Smith: We Shall Defend.
Bust of Dr. Smith: We Shall Defend.

But Dr. Charles knew that America was still in trouble. So he moved south to Hammond, and began building his second museum in 2005.

Years of steady work have again transformed Dr. Charles' yard into a folk art mass, used by him as a springboard for lessons in black history for anyone who stops by and wants to listen. "People don't really pick it up until you talk to them," said Dr. Charles. "Then the whole picture comes clear, and everything reads like a book."

Although well into his seventies, Dr. Charles still has the two-fisted forcefulness of a Marine, with strongly worded opinions on everything from race to politics. His museum covers some very unpleasant topics, but he's so earnest and big-hearted that it all somehow doesn't seem so bad.

"When you get back in your car and think about it," said Dr. Charles, "You go, 'Well, shee-it, he's right! He's got a lot of balls for saying it, but he's sure right.'"

Everything means something in Dr. Charles's yard. A statue group of a smiling black family is deliberately missing a father. A flag-waving man with a USA shirt salutes with the wrong hand, signaling distress.

The rocks piled in a low wall around the yard represent the 7,000+ black soldiers killed in Vietnam; the heads propped atop the rocks symbolize the rebellious slaves of Louisiana whose heads were chopped off and placed on the levees as a warning.

You are being recorded.
You are being recorded.

Many of the statues are small, the size of the once-popular black "lawn jockeys," and have been given toothy smiles and serving trays to convey an exaggerated, stereotypical subservience. Many others hold cameras, which Dr. Charles believes frightens away would-be thieves and vandals. "People always scared of cameras," he said.

Folk art figures.

There are tributes to black historical and cultural figures; Dr. Charles pointed out Harriet Tubman, Sally Hemings, Maya Angelou, an Egyptian pharaoh, a West African queen.

There's also a large bust of Dr. Charles himself, with the Marine Corps insignia on his hat and "We Shall Defend" on the statue base.

Dr. Charles even made a sculpture of Denzel Washington, celebrating his role in the Civil War film Glory. "I told them, 'If you call Denzel and tell him to come pick up his piece, he would honor that more than any Hollywood statue of gold,'" said Dr. Charles. "But they're too dumb to bring him here."

Visitors can view the art any time at the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive -- we just showed up unannounced -- and Dr. Charles welcomes visitors to call ahead to see if he'll be around to give one of his free-form tours (We think he adds a lot). "I appreciate the people!" said Dr. Charles. "That's what I'm here for. It's for the people. What else am I here for if not for that?"

Dr. Charles Smith African-American Heritage Museum

Dr. Charles Smith African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive

Address:
S. Walnut St., Hammond, LA
Directions:
I-12 exit 40. Drive north on US Hwy 51 BUS/Railroad Ave. for one mile. Turn right at the stoplight onto Old Covington Hwy. Drive a half-mile. Turn left onto S. Chestnut St. Drive two blocks. Turn right onto E. Louisiana Ave. Drive one block. You'll see the sculpture yard on the left, at the corner of S. Walnut St.
Phone:
504-931-5744
Admission:
Free
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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