One of the area's best-kept secrets can be found in the Hampton University Museum, in whose handsomely renovated former library building you'll find one of the country's oldest and best permanent collections of African art, African American art and Native American artifacts.
Founded in 1868 as an industrial and teacher training school for former African American slaves who stayed in Hampton Roads after the Civil War, the university (once known as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute) owns 3,500 African artifacts and specializes in the Kuba art of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where alumnus William H. Sheppard did missionary work at the turn of the century.
"It certainly has not hurt to be friends with some members of the royal family of the Kuba people, many of whom are now Hampton alumni," says Roslyn Walker, explaining the university's extraordinary success in acquisitions.
Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and herself a 1966 Hampton graduate in art education, Walker credits her success in life with the education she received at Hampton. "I'm intimately familiar with the museum, having spent most of my undergraduate days working there, including summers."
Walker calls the Native American holdings, which date from the school's pioneering American Indian education program, "of very fine quality," but describes Hampton's collection of African American art as one of a kind.
"The depth is what makes it unique," says Walker, speaking of a collection that includes works by John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell, Betye Saar, William H. Johnson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Moe Brooker and Sam Gilliam, as well as the earliest African American painter whose work has survived, Joshua Johnson.
"I mean, they have a Duncanson!" says Walker, refering to obscure, 19th-century black landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson. "How many Duncansons do you know about?"
She's quick, of course, to acknowledge that her own museum's African holdings are more encyclopedic, but Walker never flags in praise of her alma mater.
"I would encourage anyone to visit this university," she says, "to visit a museum about which they will only be able to say, 'This was an extraordinary experience.'"
-- Michael O'Sullivan