Interview with African-American Artifacts Archivist and Collector, Elizabeth Meaders

Horacio spoke with Elizabeth Meaders, owner of the world’s largest private collection of African-American artifacts. Ms. Meaders’s collection includes 20,000 items spanning from the pre-Revolution slave era through the Civil Rights Movement. Through her collection, Ms. Meaders tells an American story she feels has all too often been ignored and forgotten. In its entirety and one single lot, it will be up for auction through Guernsey’s auction house in Manhattan on March 15th at 2 PM ET. Appraisers have put the collection’s worth at between $7.5 – 10 million.

Discussion topics include:

  • The beginnings of her collection
  • Finding new items to collect through sports shows and catalogues
  • Filling knowledge gaps through the artifacts in her collection
  • The possibility of using the collection to open a new museum
  • Her desire to see her collection at The Obama Presidential Library
  • Medals dedicated to Crispus Attucks and the Benjamin Butler Medal
  • Her responsibility to see that her collection gets a new life and a new embrace
  • Stewarding a potential windfall according to her life philosophy

You can listen to the podcast through Spotify or YouTube.


[Horacio Ruiz]


Welcome back to the Alts podcast. I’m your host Horacio Ruiz. We bring you industry leaders and creators to give their insights on the rapidly changing and exciting world of alternative assets. Opinion expressed on this podcast by the host and podcast guests are for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Podcast hosts and guests may maintain positions in the offerings discussed in this podcast. Our guest today is Elizabeth Meaders. Miss Meaders is a retired New York city schoolteacher with 40 years of service, who has amassed the world’s largest private collection of African American artifacts, more than 20,000 items. The collection is up for auction in its entirety. That’s right. She’s not breaking it up. On March 15th through the Guernsey auction house in New York. Some of the items in her collection includes civil war rifles, and bayonets used by African American soldiers. Rare and historic war medals. A bill Picket saddle signed letters by Dr. Martin Luther king Jr, a Joe Lewis championship belt. And so, so much more. Miss Meaders collection is unrivalled. And our conversation today will shed a light on her passion and the determination she had in building it. Miss Meaders, at 90 years old remains a teacher at heart and pulls no punches. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Elizabeth Meaders.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Miss Meaders. Thank you again for joining us today. We’re so excited to be able to talk to you before really what’s going to be a historic auction in about a week. I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is the inspiration behind your collection. Where did it start and what inspired you to start that collection?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I think because we are both teachers, we both know that we can develop a history story from an artifact or from ephemera. And so, I think I would have to say that my love of history came when I was introduced to Egyptology. And the whole idea that a tomb, King Tuts tomb was loaded with untouched items, which became historical relics. But every one of them had a story connected to it. And I think that just knowing that you could find a historical item, whether it be in paper or artifact, three-dimensional form, that there was a story connected to it. And I think I’m a little bit of a storyteller as well as a teacher. So those two things appeal to me very greatly.

[Horacio Ruiz]


I know that the collection has a – obviously a personal connection with you. I read somewhere that you kind of started a little bit with Jackie Robinson, that he kind of inspired you in some ways. And you started collecting some Jackie Robinson’s memorabilia. Is that true?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I think that’s what you call crush, having crush on a superstar. And at a certain age that seems to be a normal part of growing up. And of all the possible sports and celebrity superstars. He appealed to me the most because I have three sisters and we were all tomboys. We were all very much into sports. So, the very fact that an African American could now be seen in a manner in which she was profiled in a positive way, that really appealed to me. So, I began doing what young people do when you don’t have much money. I began making scrapbooks about Jackie Robinson, mainly consisting of what is free. And then maybe I advanced through actually buying magazines. And then when I could afford it and when I was older, I began to go to sports shows, specifically looking for Jackie Robinson. But when you go to these formal sports shows, dealers will also have things that don’t have anything to do with the theme of the show. And so, at some of these shows, I began to see military things because most people who collect sports, they’re into masculine things. So, at the sports shows, I began to notice things that related to military and I kind of switched my allegiance from sports and Jackie Robinson to military. And so, the more I sampled what was out there, the more addicted I became as a history collector.

[Horacio Ruiz]


And I know you talked about being fascinated with history and obviously the collection has a special meaning to you because you are an African American woman. What does it mean to you to be like the steward of this – the world’s largest private African American collection artifacts? Right. Did you see yourself like being on a mission?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, this was purely a labour of love, a private endeavour. It’s just that my level of passion was probably higher than most people. And because I was so passion driven, I made this like a full-time occupation when I wasn’t out looking for things physically, I would be home looking through catalogues. And when you look through catalogues, none of them are specific to African American history, because very few dealers handle African American materials because they have no market for it. So why would they invest money and use their space and energy for a product that they really didn’t know what they were going to do with? So, it always has been difficult to acquire African American materials because they never were that easily available, but every way that you could find material, I followed that road because I was very goal oriented. And after a while my vision grew and I didn’t just want to document one area of African American history, I wanted to develop the whole picture.

[Horacio Ruiz]


And then you have. And like you said your collection really goes through slavery pre-Civil war as well. Yeah. Digging back to the 1700’s, all the way to the civil rights movement and beyond. So, you really have a – like you said, you’re telling a story with your collection. I’m wondering how you feel about that. Because there’s two camps that I’ve come to find out. There’s some people that want nothing to do with it, right. They want nothing to do with racist propaganda as an artifact. And then there’s others that view it as a very vital part of history and a way of sort of as a reminder, what’s your take on that?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, one of the points that I make regarding my collection is the fact that it is a knowledge gap. And when I say that I’m referencing the fact that African American history was completely left out of the nation’s history books. This is almost a crime against the people because by a unique fluke of history, African Americans are the Americans with the longest history footprint of any nationality in this country. Because African Americans were in America in the 1700’s when the country was being created. Whereas other Americans, and the only Americans here in 1700’s were American Indians, African Americans, and people from the English Commonwealth. The people from the English Commonwealth, as they went up the history timeline, their numbers begin to diminish because they begin to intermarry. So, they don’t keep their national complexity. Whereas in the 1800’s, immigrants begin to come to America in large numbers. But the main point is that they weren’t here until the 1800’s, but African Americans were here in the 1700’s. And we are the only group in large numbers that can say that we take our history from the 1700’s up to the present time. Other nationalities have to start their history contribution in the 1800’s. And that’s a fact of tremendous significance that is never woven into the American history story.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. You know the history so well. A collection tells a story. And you say you’ve travelled; you’ve met different people. As you’ve amassed the collection, you’ve met different people and you’ve been able to tell your story. Could you gimme a little highlight, some highlights about that, like who you’ve been able to meet and who’s really been interested in your collection over the years?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I cannot really say that I have met anybody of great prominence because I never seeked anybody out. And that’s really never been my mission. Like I’m a one focused person and my focus was only on the acquisition of history. And a couple of times I did lectures on slavery, but as a teacher, I don’t find that hard to do. But it’s not out what I want to do. And so, I cannot really say that I’ve come across or that I’ve interacted with anyone of great significance. And I have always found it to be very challenging to move my collection to another level, because the African American museums that exist in America, almost all of them are underfunded. And so, they have no money to buy collections. And what most of the African American history museums did is they celebrate the history of their own geographic area. 


Or if there’s a prominent celebrity connected with their geographic area, they develop a museum around that person. So, in my effort to just randomly tell the whole story of African American history, there’s really no place for me to go because I don’t have a target waiting for this product that I developed. And that’s the sad reality because now that I am 90 years old, I do need to hope that this can be embraced maybe by a community that has no museum whatsoever and has the money that maybe such a museum will want the collection. And then my other hope is that we have a lot of very wealthy, philanthropic people who love history. Maybe one of them would buy this collection and place it where it’s needed, and it’s needed in a lot of places.

[Horacio Ruiz]

Absolutely. That’s interesting. The newest museum has come up and it has a lot of significance and I’d like to go visit one day. You have like the national museum of African American history and culture in Washington DC. And I know they have some powerful exhibits there. Have you been in touch with them on the regular basis leading up to the auction in terms of like them being interested in acquiring your collection with even that museum or other museums?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, the African American museum in Washington, the Smithsonian, that’s a museum that the federal government paid for. Gave them a budget in the billions, gave them a staff of workers in the thousands, this project that I’ve been working on for 65 years, I’ve done it all by myself. But as far as this wonderful museum in Washington DC is concerned, when you create a museum, you have a mission and a goal. And because they’ve had such great resources, they have been able to meet their mission goal. So, they have plenty of incredibly important consecrated African American history material. So, they don’t really need more material, but they still could be the perfect home for my collection because they don’t have everything just as I certainly don’t have everything. And what I do have could be woven into their collection and they could really take whatever they do not need and help to sure up some of the many other African American museums that really don’t have any material, because they never had the money to buy material. 

So, I still have hopes that maybe there will be outreach to me from the African American museum in Washington DC. But I fully understand where they’re at in their own evolution. And ideally, as I said before, this collection should be in a museum where there is a need and a vacancy because they have nothing. And I also would like to say, because naturally I think about the possibilities for where this museum could go, and I feel that it would be a perfect fit for Barack Obama’s presidential library. Because a presidential library is a source for researchers. It’s not something for the public. But why couldn’t the Obamas create a museum for the people right next to their museum for the researcher. They’re located in Chicago, a city that desperately could use and uplift. And this is what this museum is. 


It’s an inspirational uplift and a patriotic healing and teaching instrument. So that would be a wonderful place for the collection to go. But of course, I can’t put my fingers in Barack Obama’s pocket and tell him that I have something ready for you. You cannot – like people say to me “well what about your children, don’t they want this collection?” The bottom line is you cannot transfer your passion to anybody else. There’s nobody like me. Thank God. And we’re all one of a kind. And so, this particular collection and any collection and any interest that a person has, it has to be met by somebody who thinks like they do. And it’s not easy to find that person.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. You’re talking about the collection; you’re talking about the passion you have. Real quick. What are one or two items that are in your collection that you still think have like a special significance to you?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I told you earlier that I started out with sports and then I advanced to military. The military contribution that African Americans have made in this country. When you consider that we were in the military from the 17 hundreds, right on up to the present time, those contributions are what I would call consecrated. Again, never been appreciated, never been even acknowledged in the history book, but I happen to have two medals. And the metals are just absolutely loaded with poignant significance. One of the medals is a medal and it may be, I believe it’s the only one of its kind in existence. It’s a medal that is shaped like a Liberty bell. And the medal reads “in honour of Crispus Attucks, a Negro, the first to die in the revolutionary war”. And the top of this medal plays tribute to the 54th US colour troops from the civil war. 


So, to know that a medal exists, and I went through hell to get it. This is like something that fiddles with my heart strings, because I truly know how absolutely significant it is. Then I have a second medal and it’s called the Benjamin Buttler medal in the civil war. None of the generals wanted to lead black troops. And they complained bitterly to Lincoln, and they said, we are not going to lead no darkies. And Lincoln told him that is your assignment. You must do it. One of these generals was named General Benjamin Butler, and he reluctantly led his troops into battle in Virginia, in the St James River. He was shocked and stunned at the courage of these black troops. And for the only time in American military history, with his own money he went to Tiffany’s, and he had 199 medals created. And he said, I will deliver these medals myself because these troops surely will never get any credit. 


And he was absolutely right because when the civil war ended, they had a general review in Washington DC of all of the troops of the civil war. And they did not allow the black, the US colour troops to participate. And Benjamin Butler went before Congress and he said, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, may my arms fall from my body, If I ever have a day in my life when I fail to praise the valour and glory of these coloured troops. And those are the two medals that I am not sure I can part with.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Wow, you’re still the teacher Miss Meaders. You’re still quite the teacher, quite a story. I want to transition real quick to respect your time. And I just got a few questions about the auction. How do you feel now that you know that the auction’s going to be on March 15th at 2:00 PM through the Guernsey auction house in New York? What are your thoughts as you reflect on the collection moving on?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I absolutely know that I am of the age where I can’t go any further with this. I can’t manage my space because this collection is in a house, I’m very lucky to have a house that has nine rooms and I have a finished basement and a garage inside the house so that I have been able to adequately house the collection. But my house is still bursting at the seams because I collect in other areas as well as this is history, which is not at all related to this history project, which I call the African American history trust. But the bottom line is I’m out of years and I’m out of space. And even though I get great pleasure out of seeing these items that I am surrounded with. I have a responsibility to them to see that they receive new life and new embrace and that the public can see them because this is a patriotic healing and teaching collection. And the world sadly needs it. Because when we know about the contributions of all Americans, we can better navigate a multicultural world that we live in. And when you have a people, whose history has been completely ignored so that society thinks that instead of being contributors, we’re drainers, that’s almost criminal. And my mission is to correct that perception.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. I know you mentioned before, and you’ve talked about it. kind of when you put a collection out at auction though it’s kind of anybody can win, right? It could be an institution, it could be a museum, it could also be a private investor or a private collector, I should say, who could very well decide to take your collection and put it somewhere careful but not show it to the public. Do you fret about that? Is there kind of like that fear?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, there’s two possibilities that the collection can be a source of glorification for America, or it could be a heartbreaking disappointment to me. Those two possibilities exist because I don’t even want to talk about the negative possibilities. I just have to send a prayer out that the collection, this is America, and this is an American product. This is a collection that is critically needed. It is the only one of its kind ever created. It is 14 museums in one, because the collection is developed around 14 subjects, and they are chronologically and comprehensively developed to the point where each one could be a museum all by itself. A museum of sports, a museum of military, a museum of civil rights, a museum of African American religion, African American politics, African American education, women. So, each topic all by itself could be a museum. So, to have 14, the entirety of the African American story in one collection it’s a treasure house and it’s a mother load of information for America.

[Horacio Ruiz]


A hundred percent. Miss Meaders, last question. And this is maybe – and just kind of the expectation of the auction. I’ve seen that your collection’s been valued anywhere between five and ten million dollars. So that stands to reason that in a couple of weeks, you’re going to come up on some life changing money. Right. Have you thought about that? Have you thought about what that’s going to be like when that auction’s over, when that collection’s moving over, people are coming into your home to curate and catalogue it? And then you get this windfall from your years of collecting. Any thoughts about what you could possibly do with that?

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Well, I don’t even understand the nature of the question about money. Everybody knows how to handle money. And you handle it according to what your philosophy of life is. I believe in charity; I believe in sensible living. And so, money is only another instrument to open another level of life. And it’s almost foolish to even suggest that a 90-year-old woman has any extravagant plans for the use of money. It will be as wisely used as every part of my life has ever been.

[Horacio Ruiz]


That’s great. That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much Miss Meaders. I’m going to be tracking that auction, cheering the collection on, and like you said hoping that it does land in the hands of somebody that’s going to be able to display it and really use it as an educational tool. Memorabilia, obviously I know your African American collection is it’s different, but I have noticed that a lot of this stuff is drawing record numbers. So, you never know.

[Elizabeth Meaders]


You do. You never do know. So, all I can do is pray.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. Thank you so much. Thank you for your time. And being able to explain. The passion comes through. You kind of understand in talking to you why you’ve collected for as long as you have. So, thanks again.

[Elizabeth Meaders]


Thank you very much. Bye bye.

[Horacio Ruiz]


That was a powerful conversation, and I can only imagine what it’s like to come to terms with letting go of such a collection. Auctions can go in any number of directions. And it is my sincere hope that Miss Meaders collection lands in the right hands. That the collection will be used for its intended purpose to educate future generations. At Alts, we’ll be tracking the auction on March 15th, beginning at 2:00 PM through the Guernsey auction house. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, let others know about it. We find our guests so interesting and knowledgeable, and I know others will too. Or leave a reviewer or hit the follow button. Until the next episode, take care.

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Author

Horacio Ruiz

Horacio Ruiz

Horacio is a veteran math teacher of the New York City public school system. Prior to teaching, he lived in New Orleans where he worked in sales for the New Orleans Hornets before joining The Institute for Sport and Social Justice to rebuild homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish. He currently lives in Staten Island with his wife, Alicia, his three sons; Oliver, Henry, and Jacob, and their pitt-mi,x Tipitina. In 2019, Horacio published a biography, The White Knight: Calvin Patterson and the Integration of Florida State University Football.

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