Dr. Charles Smith (b. 1940) - artist, activist, minister, and historian - says, "My art addresses racism from a historical perspective. It represents the saves as well as African-American inventions, contributions and achievements, and defense of the Unites States." Smith began creating his sculptural landscape in Aurora, Illinois, in 1968 as a tribute to the more than 7,000 African-Americans who died in Vietnam. The site, known as THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE MUSEUM AND BLACK VETERAN'S ARCHIVE, eventually grew to be a memorial to all Africans and African-Americans, commemorating the marking, for African-Americans, what preservationist Lisa Stone has called "the pivotal moments in individual and collective life."
Smith was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was raised by a single mother in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Smith credits his mother with being a driving force in the creation of his monumental sculpture garden, acknowledging her amazing love and devotion to God and the church and her familial devotion as rock-solid guides to understanding life. In addition to the example set by his mother, Smith we greatly affected by his own experiences. When smith was a boy of fourteen years, Emmett Till of Chicago - a boy near Smith's own age - was visiting his relatives in Mississippi where he became the victim of horrific racial violence. Till was brutally beaten to death by racists and his body later thrown in the Tallahatchie River. Till's mother, against much opposition, arranged for a widely publicized open-casket funeral to reveal and personalize the senseless brutality that had stemmed from hatred - some 50,000 people came to see the body. His murderers were set free, further galvanizing the civil rights movement.
Later, as a young adult, Smith served as a United States Marine in Vietnam. Among the many struggles was the loss of his brother-in-combat, Sergeant Ramey, just moments after the two were photographed together. While Smith received an honorable discharge and the Purple Heart, the lasting effects of Agent Orange and the horrors of war are still with him. Smith notes it was after he returned from Vietnam that he felt divinely inspired to create art that bolstered the self-esteem of African-Americans and other minorities. He says, "I'm going into the heart of mankind - Blacks, Whites, Hispanics - wherever ignorance separates us I want to be there² My act is that of Dr. Martin Luther King... having a dream, a vision, and a hope for our people and place in this world with respect, where one is judged by character not color."
Smith describes walking through his art-environment as "being inside a collage." The multifaceted workings of his mind are reflected in the sculptures, architecture, and organization of the property as an outdoor museum. Noting that each time "older African-Americans pass this life, it's like a library burned to the ground," Smith explores all aspects of the African-American struggle. Hence, the figures that populate Smith's yard are African-American heroes and heroines, spiritual leaders, artists and musicians, athletes, and personal friend. His subjects exude pride, celebrate talent, acknowledge despair, reflect endurance, and show the ability to survive through humor and joy. Exposing and challenging racism is Smith's primary goal; craftsmanship and "finished" works of art take a backseat to these concerns.
Dr. Smith's sculptures change and adapt to the world just as living people do, taking on patinas and stories over time, thus incorporating elements of the world that surrounds them. And while Smith believes God plays an active role in the sculptures' appearance through what he calls "weatherization," many of his important pieces are in significant need of repair and ongoing care. Stemming from his desire to have his work safeguarded for the future, Dr. Smith - the "Dr." a self-appointed title appended to call attention to the extensive education that life has given him - asked Kohler Foundation, Inc., to help by having numerous pieces moved off-site, conserved, and subsequently gifted to JMKAC and other institutions around the United States. The works on view comprise the first part of this large-scale preservation effort. Smith says, "Each piece, to me, is like a seed planted and every place it goes it will tell the story of what I tried to share."