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Chris Webber: New Jack Renaissance Man
By Lisa R. Foeman

Mayce Edward Christopher Webber III. Renaissance man? To be sure. New Jack Renaissance man? Ah, there’s the better descriptor!

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Webber’s interests are as diverse as the proverbial melting pot. Historical artifacts and philanthropy. Rhythm and blues and hip hop. Jazz and the blues. Basketball and traveling historical exhibits. Finding and developing musical talent. Only twenty four hours in the day? 365 days in a year, an extra one in a leap year? Mere details for this man of 27 years with so much to accomplish!

The genesis of Webber’s fascination with acquiring African American historical artifacts is complex and multi-faceted. Recalling how he was bitten by the collector’s bug, Webber begins with his matriculation through high school at the multiculturally diverse Country Day School (Detroit, Michigan) where he interacted daily with students from many backgrounds - Jewish, Arabic, Indian, Chinese, etc. Said Webber of his rich educational experience, “it opened me up to so much. I realized everyone has traditions…. I understood myself more by watching other people and seeing how they held their families, religion, and country in reverence…. Appreciating the different people I met made me appreciate myself [even] more. I wanted to be able to tell my friends and kids back in the ‘hood or wherever I go that it’s about appreciating yourself and knowing where you come from.”

The opportunity to vicariously experience his father’s childhood also played a part in developing Webber’s interest in African American history. Webber remembers family trips to his father’s native Mississippi where his dad shared stories about growing up in the segregated south. His most poignant memory is visiting the same town hall where black people were hung when his father was a young boy. Webber identifies the picture of that town hall as his first African American historical “artifact.”

That Webber’s first artifact derived from a familial experience is not coincidental. His advice to those wishing to start an African American artifacts collection is to “start at home.” Said Webber, “they [families] have so much tradition.” He recommends looking through old family photo albums and videotaping family elders because “those words last forever.” In Webber’s family keepsake box is a cherished videotaped conversation between he and his now deceased grandfather in which the latter tells his life story. Most importantly, Webber suggests reading materials on Black history. Echoing the same sentiment expressed by Mark E. Mitchell, the historian and dealer from whom he acquired many of his artifacts, Webber stated, “you can’t just go looking for things you know nothing about. You have to understand the history [by reading about it].”

What pieces are actually in Webber’s collection? “One of my favorite pieces is a first edition book by Phillis Wheatley written in 1773 called Poems of Various Subjects: Religion and Morals,” said Webber. Holding Wheatley in high esteem as the “Mother of Black Literature,” Webber noted that Poems is the first ever book published by an African American woman and only the second by an American woman. Remarked Webber, “I’ve been the only one who’s been able to touch the pages [of the book]. Everybody’s mad [that] I touched the pages because of their frail condition. I had to touch the pages.” Also in Webber’s collection are works - original speeches and postcards - by Frederick Douglass. One postcard is addressed to the Ambassador to Haiti in which Douglass comments on the hypocrisy of America. In addition, the collection features letters from Booker T. Washington and a postcard from Malcolm X to Alex Haley dated February 19, 1964 in which Malcolm X writes, “ One hundred years after the Civil War, the chimpanzees get more recognition, respect and freedom in America than our people do.” Native American tribal masks round out the collection.

While Webber’s collection is housed at Wayne State University in Detroit, he has a burning desire to show the pieces via a traveling museum exhibit targeted to children. Readily discerning that access is what separated his educational experiences from those of his buddies in the ‘hood, Webber believes that the artifacts will convey the message to children that “[they] are somebody.” He continued, “you never know what is going to touch a kid.” It’s a lack of knowledge of their history that “contributes to self-esteem problems.” More importantly, [the artifacts] will remind them of our history, the struggle…. [The artifacts] bring history to life,” Webber noted.


Phillis Wheatley Poems Courtesy Mitchell Archives
Phillis Wheatley Poems

Webber’s traveling exhibit could very well supplement, in his opinion, the paucity of African American history taught in schools.


Recognizing the fact that in many cases, Black History Month is the only time that the achievements of African Americans are highlighted, Webber explained, “I wish [Black History Month] didn’t have to be significant because [African American history] should be something we cherish anyway.”

 

Webber is always looking to add to his collection. “I want to go after pieces to educate kids, but also that mean something to me as well.” He laments the fact, however, that “not many Black people own our history.” According to Mitchell, this is due in part to lack of access. That is, the exclusive auction houses do not widely publicize the availability of African American works of significant historical value.

In addition to being a collector of historical artifacts, Webber is also a philanthropist. The Chris Webber Foundation and the Take Time Out Foundation “are basically intertwined with the Take Time Out Foundation being more educational.”

 

Influenced by his mother’s career as a teacher for over thirty years in the Detroit public school system, Webber views the Take Time Out Foundation as an opportunity “to try to give back” by donating computers and scholarships to and establishing academic programs in the public schools. The Chris Webber Foundation last fall committed $1 million to the city of Detroit to assist with a variety of services such as the homeless shelter and the Meals-on-Wheels program with $100,000 earmarked for the Police Athletic League. Estimating that he’s donated $600,000 to charity since 1993 and before his latest contribution, Webber stated that his namesake foundation affords him an organized vehicle through which to channel his charitable giving.

Discussing his musical side, Webber teased, “I definitely love hip hop, but that’s not my favorite.”

 

It turns out that Webber has a deep affinity for jazz and R&B. On the R&B front, the Motor City’s own Anita Baker tops Webber’s preference list. When not playing basketball, “all my free time is spent in jazz clubs or blues clubs with older people listening to them do their thing,” Webber stated.

Webber’s musical interest was cultivated in the church and by his mom, Doris, who gave voice and piano lessons on the side and played for the church choir. She encouraged his interest in music as a child by making songs from lyrics he wrote. But it was in church where her influence was demonstrated to others. “You don’t even know how much my mom exploited me back then,” Webber chuckled.

 

“There were five [of us] and we had to hold hands [in the choir]. [People would say], here are the Webber kids.”

 

To this day, Webber confesses “I’m scared to go to church with my mother because she will call me to do a solo” like she did two years ago. On that occasion, Webber obliged and sang “Jesus You’re The Center Of My Joy,” a favorite of the pastor’s wife.

After his basketball career is over, Webber would like to involve himself in the music industry somehow, either “finding talent or working with talent.”

 

He’s already explored the artist side of the industry, releasing the hip-hop CD 2 Much Drama in 1999.

As expected, Webber discussed basketball a bit, but the conversation focussed on the improvement process. Said Webber, “I don’t think I’m a very prideful person. And so, I watch a lot of players. I really like what [some] guys do and if they can do something that I can’t do, I’m going to learn how to do it. I just want to be an overall player. A big man who can dribble. Most big men can’t. But still be good in the post. I really feel that [improving my] free throw [percentage] really brought my game to another level because of my confidence. You just can’t foul me at the end of the game [anymore]. Going to the line will not take my confidence away.” Webber’s free throw percentage has drastically improved over the years from a dismal 53% in 1993-94, his rookie season, to an impressive 75% at last season’s end.

Webber’s improvement of his overall game on the hardcourt is not the only time in his life in which he’s established a goal and set about accomplishing it. Witness the time in high school when he and a few friends started an ACLU Club. Calling himself “a little troublemaker,” Webber and his friends protested until the administration agreed to offer classes on African American history and to hire teachers representative of the diverse student body. Mission accomplished.

Chris, much good fortune in establishing your traveling exhibit. What a marvelous way to influence children and let them experience “history come alive.” And, thanks for all you do for the community through your foundations.
M

February 2001


 

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Chris started his collection of historical artifacts with
a photo that reflected a symbol of his dad's upbringing
in the segregated South. 
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