Dr. Charles Smith’s African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive, Hammond, Louisiana

Everything here feels “in place” for a small town. Driving past lot after lot of inviting homes, single-story structures with modest footprints. Southern residential architecture, their facades covered with white and pastel-colored vinyl siding combating the subtropical climate of Louisiana. The quaintness is broken as pass the corner as Walnut Street intersects with East Louisiana Avenue. Only when we make it to Dr. Charles Smith’s African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive do we see signs of the damage caused by Hurricane Ida. This destructive Category 4 hurricane downed trees and caused structural damage to homes. Standing in the street, looking at his toppled sculptures, he tells me, “Ida comes through and knocks things over. Every time something comes through, you just have to start back. It doesn’t matter. Hurricane vandalism.”

In 2000, Dr. Smith was en route to New Orleans to assist his sick mother when he stopped in Hammond and discovered a historical marker for the founder of the town, Peter Hammond. Hammond settled in the area because of its natural spring water and dense pine forests, and he found the area an attractive location for a Confederate army shoe factory. The marker seemed so curious to Dr. Smith. It reads: “Under this oak is buried Peter Hammond, of Sweden, who founded Hammond, La., about 1818. Nearby are the graves of his wife, three daughters, and a favorite slave boy.” As someone who had devoted their life to documenting and telling the stories of well-known and lesser-known figures of Black Americans in equal measure, Dr. Smith was outraged by the callous and impersonal version of history and felt called to investigate deeper into the inequality. 

The second iteration of the African American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive is remarkably similar to the first version. In 1986, in the yard of his modest home on Aurora, Illinois’ east side, Dr. Charles Smith experienced a profound religious revelation that came after 18 years of escalating posttraumatic stress disorder from his two years in combat in Vietnam, where he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps with a Purple Heart after sustaining injuries. He was struggling with the demons in his head before God came calling. Art would combat those dark thoughts; he would build a museum that would be equal parts memorial and mirror, a place for self-examination, critique, and accountability, and a revelation of hidden truths. These interconnected stories contribute to the border understanding of the human experience.  

His first sculpture and symbolic focal point of the yard honored the loss of a close friend and fellow soldier, Sergeant Ramey. At both sites, there was the central figure. In Hammond, it is a commanding self-portrait of Dr. Smith, sitting high above the ground, wearing a Marine-issued boonie hat and swathed in Pan-African black, green, and red. He is frozen in a symbolic gesture, upright, shoulders back, and his right elbow and arm extended to the sky in a sense of pride and strength. But the flag is missing, perhaps taken by Ida, maybe a more significant symbol of the lack of city support to bring this site back to its feet after the storm. But the bust of Dr. Smith remains undeterred. The plinth he sits above reads in big, bold words: WE SHALL DEFEND. This could be read in many ways: defense of this country, of ourselves, of this yard, or defense of Black heritage and contributions. It reflects a broader statement on defending the values and rights of his community, echoing his roles as both a veteran and an activist.

Throughout the yard is a gathering of multitudes, a dense crowd of figurative sculptures, often crafted with concrete. (Or, as he phrased it: See because a lot of people don’t know what I use or what I do. And I don’t say anything because I won’t tell them what I use. Because I’m like Coca-Cola. I’m not giving you my recipe is secret.”). They are ash-colored and painted, constructed rapidly, and set out to be exposed to the elements. The figures represent a chorus of voices that trace the historical trajectory of the Black experience, spanning from Africa, across the Middle Passage, through the era of slavery and plantation life, into the early 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement, and continuing to the immediacy of today. Ida did her damage, knocked numerous of the sculptures down, and served arms and heads from bodies, but from the ones that were spared, you can picture the site in full force, a sea of figures standing about two feet tall. Often, they are far from pretty. These smaller ones feel familiar to lawn jockeys, the once-popular 18th-century figures with a complex and controversial history, intertwining elements of racism, folklore, and historical significance. Dr. Smith’s figures hold many of the same stereotyped caricatured features of lawn jockeys, such as exaggerated lips, wide eyes, and submissive postures; however, he actively engages with history by blending traditional narratives with his artistic reinterpretations. He does not erase the racist origins of the symbols he uses but instead layers new meanings onto them. This approach allows him to engage with the full weight of historical context while asserting a new, empowering narrative that respects and elevates the subjects depicted.

They can be difficult; they can be dignified. But, by combining historically loaded elements with new interpretations that challenge those histories, he creates works that are not easily decipherable at first glance. His art encourages viewers to question their understanding of history, the evolution of racial symbols, and the ways in which art can influence perception and thought. The sculptures do not provide clear answers but instead serve as catalysts for reflection and discussion.

I arrived in Hammond a couple of months before Dr. Smith’s solo exhibition at White Columns. He had to drive by the African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veterans Archive to meet me. Ida had turned the figures into fragments and damaged his house, sending Dr. Smith to a trailer-house studio on the town’s outskirts to finish the new work. Here, there is no fence, no barriers to learning from his work. He told me of visitors from France once waking him up early in the morning, taking photos of his work. They knew him, and they knew his message. 

Dr. Charles Smith is more than an artist. He is a historian, an educator, and a preacher of the gospel of truth, using his talents to challenge and teach. His sculptures, while rooted in pain, are also filled with the humor and beauty of Black life. They shine brightly, much like the artist himself, who continues to work tirelessly, ensuring that the stories of Black America are seen, heard, and felt.