Whether its a birdhouse or a dollhouse, Audrey Davis cant say for sure yet. Either way, the recently acquired slave shack is a rare find for the Alexandria Black History Museum.
The piece has a slanted, ramshackle appearance. Uneven planks of thin wood form a house, slanted roof and rickety porch. Gently lifting the shanty out of a storage box at the Wythe Street museum, where Davis is assistant director and curator, she notes the set comes with four cast iron figurines.
Who built it remains a mystery, but they took care to capture a portrayal of a black family to survive for generations.
It could have been owned by an African American family or a white family depicting workers on their property, Davis said. But it does appear whoever created it was doing it with a great deal of respect, not trying to make fun of the figures he was depicting.
That portrayal of the slaves or poor sharecroppers was reason enough to jump at the piece when it went to auction at The Potomack Company. At a cost of $700, the museum acquired the shanty from the Lee-Fendall House Museum when the historic home put its dollhouse collection up for bid in December.
The acquisition is a boon for the museum and the city, especially given the few depictions of black men and women that arent derogatory or stereotypical, said Amy Bertsch, of the office of historical Alexandria.
As part of a collection it enhances the museums ability to interpret history in that era and as far as the stereotypical depiction, a lot of time when you see objects from the era of Jim Crow they are very offensive stereotypes and to be able to have objects like these in the collection is a wonderful opportunity, she said.
While more research is needed before the piece can be accurately dated, Davis believes it likely was crafted around the turn of the last century. Not many examples of folk art from the black community have weathered the passage of time as well, she said.
Its something we are really excited about, there are so few tangible pieces of African American history that arent around, Davis said. So many things disappeared, discarded as not having much value.
Each of the citys publicly supported museums has an annual acquisition budget, but many augment their wallet by fundraising or help from community groups, Bertsch said. The Lyceum Company has bought stoneware produced in Alexandria for the museum, while Gadsbys Tavern has acquired a ceramic tankard.
Each museum has a specific collections plan and they identify what objects, what artifacts the museum would collect, Bertsch said. This is perfectly appropriate for the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Theres no timeline for when the piece will go on display. Theres still research to be done, but Davis envisions finding a place for the dollhouse or birdhouse in an exhibition of childrens toys and other memorabilia.
Ive also thought about doing a show just devoted to toys and the evolution of toys and play for African American children, she said. Its often very difficult to find a doll. When I was growing up there were very few dolls that depicted African American children.
Carefully arranging three of the figurines the fourth is screwed into place on the porch Davis points out the detail captured by the craftsman. The men are lifelike, wearing laborers clothes, while the women don plain dresses.
Its a glimpse of how family life would have been, she said.