Elizabeth Meaders is telling a story.
“This is Bill Richmond,” the retired teacher says, reaching down to pick up an early 19th-century etching of a Black man. Born into slavery on Staten Island before the Revolutionary War, he was, according to local legend, “accosted by three Redcoats—and proceeded to beat all three of them.” A British commander was so impressed, Meaders continues, that he convinced Richmond’s owner to free him and brought him back to England, where he became a boxing legend known for his bobbing-and-weaving style almost two centuries before Muhammad Ali. Richmond later set up a boxing academy and served as an usher at George IV’s 1821 coronation. “He was America’s first sports superstar—and nobody knows anything about him,” says Meaders. “This is an example of the need for this collection, because it’s loaded with untold stories.”
The “collection” referenced by Meaders consists of some 20,000 objects she’s assembled over the past seven decades in an attempt to document the full history of Black Americans in the United States. Every wall, table and shelf in her three-story Staten Island home is crammed with pictures, posters, signs, statues, medals, sports memorabilia and military gear—a spectacular accomplishment for a teacher of modest means. (She’s refinanced her mortgage twice and supplements her purchases with gifts from family and friends.) Highlights of the collection include Marcus Garvey’s death mask, a medal given to African American troops by Union General Benjamin F. Butler, a 1920s saddle used by Texas cowboy Bill Pickett, an FBI wanted poster for activist Angela Davis and a photo signed by performer Josephine Baker.
Now 89, Meaders has decided that it’s finally time to part with her collection, which will be sold next month by Guernsey’s auction house in a single lot with no reserve. “This is the story of a people, and in telling a story of a people, you don’t pull out pieces of a puzzle,” Meaders says of all-or-nothing sale. “Because then you haven’t told the story. You’ve only told aspects of it.”
Of all the collections he’s seen over the years, Meaders’ is unique, says Wyatt Day, former head of African Americana at Swann Auction Galleries. “Unlike other collections that are rather glitzy and have things like Lincoln’s autograph, Elizabeth has filled in all of the gaps of the minutiae of history,” adds Day, who has known Meaders and her work for years. That’s not to say individual items in the collection aren’t valuable: Another medal distributed by Butler during the Civil War, for example, recently sold elsewhere for more than $20,000. But the collection’s true value, according to experts, is in its totality. “It’s a visual collection—it’s meant to go into a museum,” says Randy Weinstein, founder of the Massachusetts-based Du Bois Center at Great Barrington. “Taking kids to see it would be like nothing else they would experience.” In 2009, Weinstein, who also runs North Star Rare Books, appraised the collection at $7.5 million. “I defy anyone to try and put together a collection like she did today,” he says, “‘cause it ain’t gonna happen.”
New York rare ephemera dealer aGatherin’ appraised the trove at $5 million in 2010, when an attempt to sell it to the New York State Museum and Library fell through. Given the renewed interest in African American history sparked by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, ephemera dealer Diane DeBlois, who conducted the 2010 assessment along with her husband and partner Robert Dalton Harris, suggests that this figure could be much higher today. “The appreciation for things like political activist posters has just gone through the roof,” she says.
Beyond the actual purchase price, the collection will cost millions to properly curate and display, involving countless hours of organizing, cataloging, scanning and conserving items to make them available to the public. Still, DeBlois is confident that buyers will emerge. “Run your mind over wealthy Black actors, actresses [and] sports figures,” she says. “If they could see this would make a significant enough cultural statement, there are people for whom that amount of money would not be a hindrance.”
Apart from a single banner featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s profile and the words “I Have a Dream,” the exterior of Meaders’ home offers few clues to the treasures held within. Spry and chatty, she welcomes visitors with a tour. “I’ve kind of tried to set up viewing areas, but they’re only samples,” she says, opening the door to a storeroom off the foyer that contains her military collection. Hanging from the ceiling is a tattered Nazi flag signed by members of the all-Black 761st Tank Battalion that liberated it during World War II. Beneath the flag is a table strewn with rifles and bayonets from nearly every American war, including weapons wielded by the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, who fought on the Western frontier during the Civil War.
Next, Meaders walks into a room where artifacts related to slavery are strewn across a dining room table: shackles, an overseer’s whip, ceramics painted with scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A big blue banner from the New York Anti-Slavery Society and tributes to Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown appear above the table. “I focus more on the abolitionists, who are the unheralded heroes of that era,” Meaders says. One of her own ancestors, according to family genealogical research, was the last enslaved person on Staten Island to be freed. Her grandfather, William Morris, founded the borough’s chapter of the NAACP and had a middle school named after him. (Meaders later taught there.)
During the Great Depression, Morris started an auction and storage business, dispersing estates of families that had hit hard times. “I would see these magnificent antiques, you know, inlaid music boxes that just thrilled me,” she says. Even at age 7 or 8, Meaders was a “picker,” fishing perfume boxes and other items out of other people’s garbage. It was studying Egypt in elementary school, however, that inspired her love of historical artifacts. “When I first learned about discovering King Tut’s tomb, I was extremely curious about all these artifacts and the stories attached to them,” she says.
At 18, Meaders started collecting magazines and other memorabilia linked to baseball great and civil rights trailblazer Jackie Robinson. “Everything about him just caught my fancy,” she says. Now, her downstairs living room houses much of her sports collection, including a life-size wax figure of Hank Aaron that she rescued from a museum in New Hampshire, an original heavyweight champion belt won by boxer Ken Norton and a rocking chair owned by baseball legend Satchel Paige.
During her 39 years as an elementary and middle school history teacher, Meaders got married and divorced and had two daughters, both of whom became teachers, too. All the while, her collection kept expanding. She now estimates its size at well over 20,000 items, though she admits that she doesn’t know the actual number. “That’s all my fault,” she says. “To me, the number was irrelevant. It was strictly the essence of what’s worth keeping.”
Meaders’ basement contains her self-titled “civil rights, civil wrongs” collection, which features letters written by King and Rosa Parks, typed instructions given to protesters during the Montgomery bus boycott, and handwritten signs from the 1963 March on Washington. The virulent racism that prompted this activism is represented by the black Ku Klux Klan (KKK) robes of the former grand dragon of Louisiana, which Meaders obtained from a reporter. Items bearing KKK insignias, including a handmade quilt and a child’s toy gun, surround the robes, testifying to the all-consuming nature of white supremacy. “If you belong [to the KKK], this is your life,” Meaders says. “It’s the family, the women, the children.” Displaying reminders of bigotry is just as important as showing those of triumph in presenting the whole truth of the African American experience, she argues, adding, “History is truth-centric. You have to document what you say. Otherwise, it’s folklore.”
In an adjoining room, Meaders keeps items related to show business, like rare posters from the Apollo Theater and photos of singers Billie Holiday and Marian Anderson. Even though the pace of her collecting has slowed in recent years, she’s found time to start a new collection of aviation artifacts and expand her holdings on African American women. “What keeps you going is the fact that you don’t know what’s out there,” she says. “You find some things that just shock you because you had no idea they existed.” Upstairs, she shows off one such surprise: a hooked rug depicting early vaudeville film star Bert Williams that she bought on eBay. A table nearby holds some of her greatest treasures, including a bronze bust of Robinson and an FBI missing poster for three Freedom Riders killed in Mississippi in 1964.
Over the years, Meaders has supported her collecting efforts through savvy money management and fees earned from lectures and exhibitions of artifacts. To assemble the trove, she spent every spare weekend attending auctions and estate and memorabilia sales, relying on relationships with dealers and her own trained eye to ensure items’ authenticity. These days, she does most of her business with trusted rare book and artifact dealers over the phone.
As she makes her way through the collection, Meaders tells more stories: of York, the enslaved guide who was crucial to the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition, of beauty product entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female millionaire. Her prized possession is a one-of-a-kind medal in the shape of the Liberty Bell that features Crispus Attucks, the first American colonist killed during the Revolutionary War. Created for an African American unit fighting in World War I, the medal also pays tribute to the Civil War–era 54th Massachusetts Regiment, bringing together three generations of Black soldiers who fought for America. “I will have trouble parting with that,” she says.
Though she’s reluctant to sell the collection, Meaders’ ongoing health problems, including diabetes, have convinced her that it’s finally time. “It’s taking up too much space in my house as well,” she says in an understatement. “It’s overdue, really.” Last year, she approached Guernsey’s, a New York auction house that sold Rosa Parks’ archive, now on loan to the Library of Congress, in 2014. According to Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger, the company has been in contact with a number of universities, institutions and private individuals who have expressed interest in purchasing the trove. “Frankly, it’s our hope that we can conclude a private sale before it comes to auction” on March 15, he says.
Ettinger recently brought Faye Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood and a board member at Columbia University and Jazz on Lincoln Center, to tour the collection. “I look at this ... and see my own great-grandmother who was born on a slave plantation in Mississippi and lived her life under Jim Crow,” Wattleton says. “It would really be a tragedy if it gets disassembled and this history gets lost.” The sale is all the more urgent, she adds, in light of the current pushback against teaching African American history in schools. “Some of her material tells an ugly part of who we were as a country and a society, but it’s important we see it so we don’t ever do those things again.”
Meaders remains concerned that a seller won’t emerge in time to keep her life’s work together. “Some people would like to focus on collecting Pokémon and Beanie Babies,” she says with a sigh. Her most fervent wish is to see the collection in a museum in her hometown of New York City—or maybe as a cultural history annex at the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago. Perhaps a media corporation will buy the collection as a wellspring of future stories, she theorizes. “The whole country has been negligent in teaching history, because African American history has been left out of the history books,” she says. “I call this a patriotic teaching and healing instrument, because when you are educated, you are healed.”