Making history

Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

As Black History Month came and went once again, a small, little-known museum dedicated to a local part of that history saw few visitors and little attention.The Curtis Museum, on McNichols Road west of Schaefer Highway on the city's west side, commemorates the life of Dr. Austin Curtis, an assistant to George Washington Carver, the famed former slave who became a renowned agricultural chemist noted for his many innovative uses of the peanut.

The museum was established by Douglas "Dickie" Crawford, 80, and his wife Christine, 77, who knew Curtis from his years in Detroit. But the museum is more than a tribute to its owner's friend; it's a sprawling monument to various figures in black history who have inspired him, an utterly unique exhibition of Detroit.

Curtis was born in West Virginia in 1911, graduated from Cornell in 1932, and became Carver's assistant at the Tuskegee Institute in 1935, where he remained until his mentor's death in 1943. Soon after, he moved to Detroit and opened Curtis Laboratories, which produced a number of health and hair care products based on peanut oil, until it closed in 2001.

Douglas Crawford first met Curtis in the '50s. "We were so different," he says. "He really didn't like me."

Crawford overcame a troubled early life to become a successful businessman. Born in 1927 to a family with 11 other children, his education abruptly ended in fifth grade, when he brought a knife to school. He meant to retaliate against students from the nearby black neighborhood who'd been bothering him for living in a white area.

"They were mad at me 'cause they thought I'm white or something, and they started kicking my ass, putting sand in my mouth, picking on me," he says.

He was removed from the general student population over the incident. "They took me and put me in a special room, with no books," he says. "I never saw a book after fifth grade."

He left home at 16 and headed to Paradise Valley, whiling away days at his brother's flower shop there, getting an alternate education. "I met every businessman there," he says. "I knew every man who owned a bar. I knew everybody down there, and I learned what I needed to learn."

He spent nights sleeping in a laundry truck until a streetwalker named Jessie found him and took him in. "This was my savior," he says. "She taught me what I needed to know to carry me through life."

His brother found him and dragged him home, getting him a job as a mechanic at City Airport. Eventually, he says, he followed in his father's footsteps and became one of the city's most successful minority contractors; at one point he was awarded the contracts to move homes that were displaced to make way for the Lodge and Ford freeways. Over time he also purchased and rehabbed a number of buildings around town; the largest was a 50-unit hotel on the west side.

In 1977 he bought and renovated four buildings at McNichols and Ardmore, connecting all four to create a 8,000-square-foot, indoor hair care mall called the House of Beauty.

The black history museum was born in 2000 when the Crawfords were cleaning Curtis Laboratories for a renovation and found piles of old photos, correspondence and articles tossed in garbage bags, forgotten. They rescued the materials, making them the core of the museum in a wing of the House of Beauty mall, where it has grown ever since, funded entirely by Crawford.

His museum twists and turns, spilling from each room into the next. Blue-sky paintings are the backdrop of the brightly lit rooms, whose walls are covered with framed photos of Curtis and Carver, correspondence preserved under glass, and numerous awards given to the doctor during his life. Everything's attached to seared wood that Crawford has slowly blackened with a blowtorch, creating a rustic look.

Though the museum focuses on Curtis, it also presents information about disparate black luminaries who Crawford feels deserve a place of honor, such as newsman Ed Bradley, Gen. Colin Powell and author Alex Haley. His lack of formal education has fueled his reverence for educated people of accomplishment.

Mary Jones, the museum's spokesperson and co-founder, leads the infrequent tours, though if Crawford is there he'll provide input.

"I love it when he's here," Jones says, "because he does a wonderful tour, especially with the teenagers. They not only get a history lesson, they get a fatherly lesson as well. He'll say, 'This is something you need to know!'"

Jones, 59, was a tester at Curtis Laboratories when she came to work at the House of Beauty. She reunited Crawford and Curtis, who remained close friends until Curtis died in 2004, after which his business was bought and moved to Washington, D.C., leaving the museum as the only trace of the doctor's long stay here in Detroit.

Tours are infrequent, and visitors are sparse. "Look how many people here walk by and see a big sign like that — 'Black History' — and have never stopped in, even if they come to get their hair done," Crawford says. "And they don't seem to get excited. And that's the way it is."

Despite being under the radar, he moves forward with the museum, to ensure not only that the doctor gets recognition, but also as a sincere tribute to those he feels need to be known and remembered.

The Curtis Museum is located at 14034 McNichols Rd., Detroit. For more information, call 313-341-1512.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]