ST. LOUIS — Visitors to the George B. Vashon African-American Museum often don’t know what to expect, said museum founder Calvin Riley, retired English teacher.
“Some people told me they thought I had one little room,” said Riley. ”It blows them away. I have been collecting African-American artifacts for over 40 years.”
Housed in a former mansion and funeral home, Riley has collected more than 4,000 items, some more than two centuries old. For decades Riley has visited estate sales, garage sales, and flea markets, looking for historical hidden treasure, sometimes in basements and attics.
“You have to know what you're looking for because among the trash there are artifacts, you know?” said Riley.
Artifacts that tell the lives of black nurses and doctors, train employees, teachers, policemen, soldiers, barbers, politicians, and civil rights activists.
“Each piece tells a story,” said Riley. “It tells what people were going through, what they had to endure.”
Some of the artifacts are unpleasant reminders of St. Louis’ segregated past. There is a clock with “No Negroes Allowed” printed on the clock face, and “colored only” signs that reminded blacks where they could live, or where they could sit when riding a bus.
“My goal is to show that people progress despite being segregated and suppressed,” said Riley.
The George B. Vashon African-American Museum is named after the former abolitionist who was the first licensed African-American attorney in New York State. Vashon’s son was a longtime educator in St. Louis and Vashon High School is named after both men. When Riley learned that property belonging to descendants of Vashon was going to be thrown away, he discovered a gold mine of letters, books, photos, and diaries that dated back to the 1840’s. Eventually Riley was encouraged to start his own museum.
“I flew across the country and looked at other museums to see how it was set up because I have had no museum experience,” said Riley.
The museum is located at 2223 St. Louis Avenue. For more information, 314-749-6322, www.georgevashonmuseum.org.