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History from free hands


LOS ANGELES -- Standing in the middle of his modest, unmarked Los Angeles workshop, noisy with the whir of power tools, Derrick Joshua Beard has begun to reconstruct history plank by plank.

Beard, 41, who has been variously an architect, a collector and curator, has spent a life reanimating pieces of the past that have somehow drifted out of view.

Just past the shop's entrance, lined up almost like a gathering of pews in a dimly lighted storefront church, sit five identical bed frames -- each with the sloped headboard and footboard mimicking an old-fashioned sleigh.

"The original," says Beard, stroking the sixth, "is made of Santo Domingo mahogany, one of the best, which is now extremely rare."

This piece, the one that Beard gazes at, is an Empire daybed, made in New Orleans in the 1840s by Pierre Charles Dutreuil Barjon Sr., but what makes it so noteworthy is that Barjon, and the other artisans whose work Beard has worked to locate and collect, was a freeman of color who produced a line of handmade furniture during the antebellum period.

The Sankofa Heritage Collection is an offshoot of Beard's exhibit of the work of 18th and 19th century black artists and craftsmen that toured the country for five years.

Taken from the language of the Akan people who inhabit Ghana's southern region, the heart-shaped symbol and message of "sankofa" ("We must retrieve our past to move forward") has become Beard's siren call and guiding force.

The popularity and pull of the exhibit led Beard to understand how important it was to many blacks to have tangible examples of what came before, examples of fortitude and self-reliance.

Beard has taken the message one step further, bridging old and new. With the help of a handful of local craftsmen and in concert with the Internet (www, Beard is now building homage-paying replicas of furniture grouped in four collections -- all based on designs of the leading free black artisans who were handcrafting furniture in the pre-Civil War era.

The Haitian and Louisiana collections feature the work of Haitian-born Dutreuil Barjon, who began working at 13 as a cabinetmaker in New Orleans.

The Cincinnati Heritage Collection's focus, Henry Boyd, was not only a craftsman but an inventor who developed the Boyd Bedstead, which allowed for nail-free, screw-in construction.

The North Carolina Heritage Collection features the work of Thomas Day, who from the 1820s until the late 1850s, made a name for himself building simple yet singular pieces in and around Milton, N.C. Day's secretary is the collection's centerpiece -- which bears a repeating sankofa symbol.

All this started with a banjo, laughs Beard, his soft voice climbing over the screaming drills in the background. Dressed in a roomy silk shirt and brown fisherman's sandals, he appears less mad artist, more wide-eyed prophet.

Voted one of the "Top 100 Collectors" in Art & Antique Magazine (acknowledging his collection of 18th and 19th century black decorative arts, photographs and other ephemera), Beard has traveled within the worlds of art and architecture into real estate. For five years, he made his home in New Orleans renovating houses.

Returning to Chicago, where he was born, Beard met up with an older artist and began collecting black art. Through that network, he began picking up other pieces -- and ultimately that banjo.

"Some guy out of Savannah owned it at one time. Howard Smith," Beard recalls. "He tracked me down. He heard that I was buying antiques. We talked. He had some Thomas Day pieces. I didn't have the money at the time, I told him. He said I could put a deposit down. It took me a year to pay for it. That was the bug."

From networking and reading as well as traveling the auction circuit, Beard began to assemble a collection of work.

His "Sankofa" show began its tour in Chicago in 1993 and culminated in the spring of '98 at Hampton University in Virginia.

What most impressed Charles E. Siler, the Louisiana State Museum's programs curator, who played host to "Sankofa" in 1995, was the breadth of Beard's work.

The show's greatest impact, says Siler, "was that it made the community value something that we normally call 'things.' I can't underscore that enough. Save those things that seem to be unusual. They are important. Derrick's work underscores the importance for African-Americans in particular to preserve their history for future generations. He opens the door for that."

With detailed photographs, his Web site provides a description of each piece, its dimensions, as well as historical background. The pieces range from $1,200 for North Carolina side chairs to the secretary that sells for $18,000.

With the freeman designs now in public domain, Beard has set about reconstructing the work, some exact duplicates, some with modern twists. For example, the four-poster beds were made at a time when adults were smaller, so Beard made pieces available in queen and king size.

As he began pulling together his own collection of originals, Beard amassed the stories of the individuals. Although freemen of color had ducked the yoke of slavery, they had to confront the horrors of America's racial caste system -- Boyd, for example, was burned out three times because his business was prospering.

Not only is this project a nod to the past, it also helps to lay a foundation for this community and its future, Beard hopes.

"There is something about work, especially working with the hands, carpentry, that's good for the soul. There is something spiritual about it," says Beard, who has a staff of seven. "So I'm trying to get this going so that we can do quality work. I demand quality work."

In other words, work that's built to last.

Four men who helped craft a heritage

The Sankofa Heritage line showcases work by free black artisans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Considered the Golden Era for African-Americans, the 1820s to 1860s served as a period when many black craftsmen prospered.

Either freemen who emigrated from the West Indies and arrived in the United States with their status, or slaves who began generating extra income for their owners and ultimately were able to buy freedom for themselves and their families -- these carpenters, blacksmiths, silversmiths, masons and joiners made a name for themselves during the country's antebellum period.

Some of the most prominent examples are Thomas Day, Henry Boyd and the Barjons -- father and son.

Day, who lived and worked in Milton, N.C., owned and operated a successful furniture business for more than 30 years, despite racial tensions in the community.

Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1802, Boyd obtained a general slave pass from his master to work in a saltworks and ultimately bought his freedom, after which he became a carpenter and joiner.

Pierre Charles Dutreuil Barjon was born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in 1799 to a freewoman of color and a father of unknown identity. In 1813, Barjon began apprenticing in New Orleans as a cabinetmaker. He established a shop in 1821 that was later taken over by his son Dutreuil Jr.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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