Difference Maker

Basketball's Chris Webber gives a clinic – in African-American lore

The Golden State Warriors forward turns a personal passion into a pass-along for the next generation.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    RARITIES: a collection of poems written by Phillis Wheatley are among the prized items in The Chris Webber Collection of African-American Artifacts and Documents. His collection is on exhibit at the Central Library in Sacramento, Calif.
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    A postcard to Alex Haley from Malcolm X
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    'Children need to know that there's more to them than their immediate family.' – Chris Webber
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    Salute: A program from a 1961 performance honoring Martin Luther King Jr is autographed by Dr. King and Sidney Poitier.
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Veteran pro-basketball star Chris Webber has more than fast breaks and slam-dunks on his mind these days: He wants African-American history to come alive for youths. To do that, he's become a serious collector of African-American artifacts and documents dating back to the 1700s.

The prized items in The Chris Webber Collection of African-American Artifacts and Documents include the first book written by an African-American in America, and the second by an American woman. The collection also contains a program autographed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., letters written by scientist George Washington Carver and educator Booker T. Washington, and an early-1800s accounting ledger from Virginia documenting the buying and selling of slaves.

Mr. Webber is currently sharing his collection at an exhibit at the Central Library in Sacramento, Calif. One of his favorite pieces, he says, is a postcard sent from civil rights activist Malcolm X to Alex Haley, the historian and author of the bestselling book "Roots."

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"[Malcolm X] is coming back from Mecca, and this postcard has a monkey on the front of it, and he makes a joke about how it's funny that in some places the monkey gets more respect than the black man," Webber says. "Today one would probably use e-mail, but for a personal postcard to be able to have that kind of personal message makes it very special for me."

The earliest piece Webber owns is a first edition, printed in London, of Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" (1773).

"Wheatley had to go before [Founding Father] John Hancock and recite parts of paragraphs in order to prove that a woman could actually do these things," Webber says.

It's a rare object. Very few items connected with Wheatley, who died in poverty, still exist, says Michelle LeBlanc, education director of Boston's Old South Meeting House, where Wheatley attended church. Aside from the book, she says, "There's a desk owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society."

Webber, who was born in Detroit to a schoolteacher mother and a father who was a longtime employee at the local Ford Motor Co. plant, says his interest in African-American history was ignited while he was attending a college prep school. He became friends with students from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. One thing that stood out to him was how they all honored their traditions and cultures. "So I just became interested in history – specifically, American and African-American history," he says.

After gaining fame in college as one of the University of Michigan's "Fab Five" – a team that played in two consecutive NCAA championship games in 1992 and 1993 – Webber went on to the National Basketball Association, where, in a career that has not been without controversy, he also picked up some hefty professional paychecks.

That offered him the means to explore a personal passion – purchasing pieces of African-American history.

Webber also loves to share with students the story of influential African-American orator and diplomat Frederick Douglass: "I tell them about ... how he was taught to read by a slave master's daughter, how he was influential in our government, how he spoke to President [Lincoln] on behalf of African-Americans, and how he was a great orator."

When students see the actual documents in the handwriting of these famous Americans, "it kind of just brings it alive.... I just try to get them involved in history ... and [see] that we [African-Americans] can overcome any obstacles and don't have to make any excuses."

"Both children and adults know Chris Webber as a basketball player ... but many don't know Chris Webber as a collector," says Bamidele Demerson, director of education, research, and exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit (www.maah-detroit.org), where Webber has shown portions of his collection. "To have a person of his stature involved in the collection of artifacts and documents gives an awareness that we can all do this ... that it's OK also for them to collect documents and artifacts that tell their story."

After students learn about such figures as Wheatley; Douglass; Gen. Toussaint Louverture, who led a successful slave rebellion in Haiti; Carver; and Dr. King, they begin to see that these achievers' stories have common elements, Mr. Demerson explains. "[They're] tied together in ways that are not always immediately recognizable."

Though Webber's collection started out as a personal passion, he now sees it as much more than that. "Children need to know that there's more to them than their immediate family," he says. "I think this gives kids pride – from all races."

More information about Webber and his collection is available on his website (www.chriswebber.com). Items from the collection are on view in the lobby of the Sacramento, Calif., Central Library (www.saclibrary.org) until March 2 as part of Black History Month.

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