Alan Page brings back 'Testify' exhibit to spark conversations on race

A person poses for a portrait
Justice Alan Page poses for a portrait at the Kling Media Center in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

When Alan Page was a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court he didn’t decorate his chamber with Vikings memorabilia. 

Instead, there was an old railroad sign on the wall that said “Colored Waiting Room.”  It was a constant and jarring reminder of Jim Crow era segregation.

That sign is in the private collection of the Page family, along with thousands of other pieces of art and artifacts of slavery and segregation. Together, the objects tell the story of Black history — the ugly and the beautiful.  

Justice Page and his late wife Diane Sims Page collected pieces for decades.  Many pieces are hateful, including an iron collar that locked slaves in bondage and a branding iron that marked human beings as someone’s property. Other items are inspiring, like the painting of a jazz trio and a poster of Black runners competing in the 1972 Olympics.  

In 2018, part of the collection was shared with the public in the exhibition “Testify: Americana from Slavery to Today.” Now the exhibit is returning to the Cargill Gallery at the Minneapolis Central Library, opening on February 1, along with a series of programs and events.

three people standing in front of mural with word testify
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page (left), his daughter Georgi Page-Smith and his late wife Diane Sims Page at the exhibit "TESTIFY: Americana from Slavery to Today".
Bianca Wilcox

MPR News Host Angela Davis talks with former Justice Alan Page and his daughter Georgi Page-Smith about how they hope the exhibit will spark conversations about America’s painful racist history and how we can address it. 

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Guests:

  • Alan Page was a star defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s who went on to serve 22 years as a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

  • Georgi Page-Smith is Alan Page’s daughter and a marketing and communications professional based in Brooklyn. She’s also director of the Diane and Alan Page Collection and has been deeply involved in bringing the “Testify” exhibit back to the public.

a woman and a man pose for a photo in studio
MPR News Host Angela Davis talks with Alan Page talks about how they hope the exhibit "TESTIFY: Americana from Slavery to Today" will spark conversations about America’s painful racist history.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Here are six key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What do you remember about the beginning of the art collection?

Alan Page: My late wife Diane is the heart and soul of it. She's the one that began it. She's the one that collected most of it. I got to go along for the ride. She had an incredible eye for the art and artifacts from our history. She started with an item here and an item there and started going to antique shops. We ended up finding things all over the country. In the beginning, there was no design or reason or rhyme to it all, but my wife would collect artifacts that struck her, that spoke to her sense of justice, fairness or unfairness.

I opened the collection to the public because we live in a time when social justice and racial justice are at the forefront. We thought it was important for people to understand and see where we've come from.

Georgi Page-Smith: In the beginning, I was not pleased, I was uncomfortable. I think the pieces are uncomfortable for a lot of people, but then it's important to go beyond that. It took me a while to see that important part of my context and our story. We had a very open floor plan for a modern home. I loved it, it was very contemporary. Then at some point, little things started appearing like figurines and tchotchkes. That’s how I viewed it then. There's always another layer to the story and I wasn't seeing it because I didn't want to be part of that conversation.

Tell us about the return of the exhibit in Minnesota

Georgi Page-Smith: It's identical to the exhibit that we did in 2018, there have been some discoveries since then. It is free and there is a pop-up version that will be displayed in the Main St. Cloud Library in St. Cloud, Minn. and then within that regional library system, they're going to travel it around. However, the main exhibit will be located at the Cargill Gallery at the Minneapolis Central Library. It is the perfect location, it's very accessible and open to the public. You enter the gallery, and you'll see a greeting from our family. Then you'll see the White House brick that was made by enslaved people as part of the construction of the White House. Then you'll come in and you'll see the Lincoln banner, and then at some point, you'll come to a wall with a Jim Crow era sign on it. We decided to give people the opportunity to experience that moment of segregation and separation. As it continues, there's a section devoted to labor, and a section devoted to home. There are objects of oppression and objects of expression. These are fundamental pieces of our country and its history.

Alan Page: The Abraham Lincoln banner is made of fabric, it is maybe two and a half feet wide by roughly three feet tall on a pole, with what he calls a pig oil lamp on top. We were told that it was from the funeral in 1865, but it may have been from 1864 as part of his campaign for reelection. On one side, it says “Uncle Abe, we will not forget you” and on the other side, it says, “our country shall be one country”. That saying for me sets out the hope that there was at the time of the Civil War. It's the hope that we haven't fulfilled today. This object is from that time period and when you are in its presence it is palpable.

Alan Page explains a piece in his collection.
Alan Page, NFL Hall of Famer and retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice, looks at a display which is among the artifacts of slavery and segregation collected by Page and his wife, Diane Sims Page.
Steve Karnowski | AP 2018

Your collection has a lot of signs from the Jim Crow era of segregation. What does it represent to you?

Alan Page: I had a number of them there. We also had a fantastic picture of a scene from the entrance of a bus. Looking at the back of the bus, you could see that the white people were allowed to sit and the African Americans were required to sit. It made it clear to me that the law has not always been fair, and those artifacts were a constant reminder that my obligation to serve on the court was to ensure fairness for everyone. No matter who they were, their circumstances, the color of their skin, their gender, their preferences, or what part of the state they came from, everyone was entitled to a just result.

What was the response to the exhibition from people in 2018? 

Georgi Page-Smith: It was overwhelming. We had no idea how great the response would be, or how many people would turn out. It was a record-breaking success for the Cargill gallery. But more than that, people were moved. We had a book made by a Hasidic bookbinder in New York that was open for people to write their reflections. We got so many great stories, some of which ended up online. But also, as we watched people go through the exhibit, we saw a lot of people shaking their heads in disbelief. We've heard about these things in our history books and in school, but it's a much different thing to actually be in the realm and be in the presence of a shackle that was actually placed around a child's neck.

Alan Page: Part of our hope in doing the exhibit back in 2018 was to generate conversation, and to move people to action. From almost the very beginning, on the days that Diane was down in the gallery, people would come up and talk about their memories. A lot of people who grew up in Minnesota had heard about many of these things but never experienced them. Having found themselves in the room with objects from that era, gave them a new understanding, and the sense that they had a role to play in. The name of the exhibit is Testify, and this was a place where people could testify in real-time, as they were viewing the exhibit.

Why was ‘testify’ chosen as the appropriate name for the exhibit? 

Georgi Page-Smith: Originally, the exhibit had a different location, and they were still looking for a name. I suggested different things, but then at one point, I had been listening to the song “Testify” by Common, and that word really stuck in my head. As we developed the thoughts about the exhibit, I suggested we call it “testify” because of both of my dad's time on the court and also thinking about the black church. I've been lucky enough to attend the church over the course of years, and you see and feel the power of someone testifying and telling their story and how they came through. I also thought it was a way to invite everyone into the conversation.

Tell us about the upcoming series of community events with the exhibition

Georgi Page-Smith: We're calling it “Testify Tuesdays” and it's a series of workshops in partnership with a local group called Change Narrative. Josthna Harris is an amazing facilitator, who has worked on a national level and we've brought her on board along with the ACLU of Minnesota and the Loft Literary Center. They are all going to be facilitating these workshops every week. Seven out of the eight weeks will be at the library and one of the weeks will be virtual because there was a scheduling conflict.

These will be workshops to coach and support people in developing their stories in the service of advocacy. For whatever purpose or initiative or cause that they feel is relevant to them. We want to help them develop their voice and tell their story to elected officials. There will be a group facilitating the workshop, then every individual who participates in the workshop will be given some prompts, and then the workshop facilitators will help them come up with some prompts that might tell their story.

Alan Page: At the end of the day, it's giving people a voice to testify and to express themselves. In the courtroom, for instance, you come in, you're sworn in, and you tell your story. This is the same thing only it helps people learn how to tell their story in whatever context they want to tell it. One thing we should be very clear about, there is no particular agenda to this, the subject matter is individual.

Listeners called into the show and shared their stories. Here are a couple of them.

Grandmother and grandsons aim to discover family history

I was at the 2018 showing and I couldn't believe some of the pieces that were there. It really showed the brutality and the inhumanity. I look forward to going through the exhibit again so I can see other parts that may be that hope. It was horrific and shocking but I'm so grateful that there is a collection for us to see. I've been raising three grandsons who are reaching young adulthood, who are Black, and I would love this next time to be able to take them to see it. I believe there's a very good chance that there was slavery in their history, we haven't found a way to find that out yet. Our family came from the south and I'm just wondering how they got there.

— Brenda from Woodbury

Man remembers a racist experience in South VA.

My whole family was raised in Milwaukee, Wis. During that period, we weren't aware of what was happening. Then my dad got transferred down to Southern Virginia. I was three years old. When my grandma came down to visit, she wanted to take me back home on the train, while sitting in the train station I still vividly remember a lit-up sign above a doorway of a separate room. I kept asking my grandma: What's that word say? because at age three you don't know how to read, and she kept trying to avoid it. She finally just yelled out: “it just says colored”, and I said: “well, what's colored?” Because I thought colored meant to take your crayons and color something. But then she said: “hush-hush, just hush”. I don't think she wanted to tell me the real reason at that young age, and I'm glad she didn’t.

— Terry from St. Louis Park

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