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Former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and his wife, Diane, have amassed a stunning collection of African-American art. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and his wife, Diane, have amassed a stunning collection of African-American art. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Art for a world dictated by the past

Diane Page met the work of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and discovered that his work resonated. Some of it was written in the standard English of the time and some in dialectic that, Page says, is reminiscent of rap music. She started to think about African-American art and segregationist symbols that could easily be lost, and what her four children were learning about African-American history. So she and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page went to work.

They have amassed a stunning collection ranging from oil paintings to slave branding irons, crystal candleholders of dancing servants or slaves in fancy dress, KKK artifacts, posters advertising “Negroes” for sale and metal spring-loaded signs that change in an instant from “white” to “colored.” It’s painful to look at, frightening to think about and nerve-racking to walk through. There is African art and some Native American art as well.

And it is in need of a new home. The Pages want to find it a good home, in Minnesota, where it is easily accessible to others.  Their dream — and it’s still in the dream stage — is to establish the Page Center for Education and Social Justice, which would also house the Page Education Foundation. The foundation has provided scholarships to students of color since 1988, not coincidentally the year he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Page served on the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1993 to 2015, having aspired to a legal career since 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the segregation-challenging case Brown v. Board of Education. He is also a storied member of the Minnesota Purple People Eaters, having played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1967 to 1978 and for the Chicago Bears from 1978 to 1981. Page earned All-Pro honors six times and was voted to nine consecutive Pro Bowls. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1971. He was important in football as a youth but wasn’t sheltered from racism, and he and his wife want to provide a way for the country’s past, however shameful and painful, to be remembered. That’s what their collection is for.

The Pages are particularly interested in paintings by the watercolor artist Bernice Lee (Burr) Singer, born in 1912, who often painted African-American people.  One is a charming picture of African-American children in a swimming pool, but the title of the painting is “Only on Thursdays.”  That’s when African-American children were allowed to swim in the pool, which was cleaned on Fridays.  Another charming picture of children is titled “Alligator Bait.”

There is a poster for the “Georgia State Colored Fair,” an advertisement for the sale of “bright mulattoes worthy of a gentleman needing same” and the a sign welcoming shoppers to the Klan department store, issued at the time of the KKK’s first national convention in Dallas in 1922.  There are many dolls depicting black women in stereotypical ways.  There is also a homemade canvas sign saying “Uncle Abe, we will not forget you!” and on the other “Our country, shall be one country!”  It was displayed during Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege and is one of the Page’s favorite pieces.

The Pages did not welcome the results of the 2016 presidential election and are worried about the country’s future. Page has acknowledged racism but refused to focus on it. But he knows history matters. At a recent attorney gathering, Page said “We find ourselves trapped in a world that has been dictated by our past. Our institutions have arisen out of slavery – we haven’t been able to eliminate or address the present effects of past discrimination. … We are in a time and place that is trying to go backwards. It frightens me a little bit.”

Staff photographer Bill Klotz visited the Pages’ home:

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