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Quest for Authenticity

Collection of black history letters and documents tell the true story.

How to buy a slave. How to sell a slave. How to price a slave. All this information and more can be obtained by walking into the Martha Washington Library at 6614 Fort Hunt Road. Just inside the front entrance, there is an extensive display dedicated to Black History Month. All the items on view are just a minuscule example of the array of print information that has been collected over the past 40 years by Frank and Marie-Therese Wood.

“Only a very small part of our black history collection is exhibited at the library. We have enough to fill several museums,” said Frank Wood, who operates an enterprise known as “The Picture Bank” from the River Towers home in Belle Haven he shares with his wife.

However, “several museums” might be a gross understatement. The Woods have collected approximately three million prints, documents, personal letters, newspaper articles and complete collections of publications from here and abroad.

“We rent pictures to leading book and magazine publishers and TV documentary producers. One example is the Time-Life Civil War book series. Over 300 of our original Civil War illustrations were used in that series,” Wood said.

“While our black history collection is one of our primary collections, containing thousands of original illustrations and documents, it is only a small part of our entire inventory,” he said.

What used to be housed in one section of their dual condominium on Wakefield Drive is now in the process of being transferred to a newly constructed, three-story building at the home of their daughter and son-in-law in Lottsburg, Va. “It was just getting to be too much here. We only had a narrow path to get around,” Wood said.

IN HIS LATE 70’S, Wood and another man, now in his 80’s, according to Wood, built the new home for the collection themselves. “He really taught me a lot. We did everything but the foundation and roof. All the interior, electrical and all,” he said.

“If I had to build another building now I’d know exactly what to do. It’s a piece of cake,” Wood added.

Wood, a natural-born researcher, also describes himself as a compulsive buyer when it come to historical documents. “We were on vacation up in Maine and got lost one day. We drove into this small town and there was a bookstore. And in the window was a collection of the Illustrated London News. I went in and asked the owner if they were for sale. He said yes and asked how many I wanted. I said I’ll take the lot,” Wood said.

“I became interested in black history when I was researching the ironclad ships of the Civil War. Then I thought ‘wow, what a subject to research.’ That’s how I got started on this subject,” he said.

That “wow” has paid off for Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center on Wythe Street. “Wood’s collection has proven to be a great resource. It is particularly significant because we are building a permanent exhibit,” he said.

“He provides an immediate resource within the community that we were able to tap into. And his prices were well within our budget which was a great help,” Hicks said.

Wood’s rental prices range from $50 to $400 per piece depending on its value. “We work on the honor system with our customers. And, I’ve only run into two companies that I will never deal with again,” he said.

When Wood is unable to send his client an original he creates a reproduction with a copy camera. If a customer wants color prints that is added by the expertise of his wife Marie-Therese. The cost of this service depends on the print.

A second marriage for both, Wood and his wife have three daughters and a son by previous marriages. “We met at a local dinner and were married in 1976. We are both very much into this,” said the native of Lynchburg, Va. Marie-Therese is from Cognac, France.

“We’ve got several hundred original slavery documents,” he said. Some of those are on display at the library on Fort Hunt Road. They present a glimpse into the world of slavery in America.

“If you were a free black child or adult traveling in this country during slavery without the proper papers you could be arrested and resold if you were not claimed by your former owner,” Wood said. “The sheriff would advertise for the former owner. But, if no one came forth, resale was approved.”

According to Wood, “The slave owner never lost. If a slave did something that called for his execution, the owner was paid the value of the slave.”

AMONG WOOD’S COLLECTION are all the Harper’s weeklies from its beginning in 1857; a complete set of the British satire magazine “Punch;” a host of French periodicals; The Illustrated London News from 1842 through World War II; and a host of documents dealing with slavery and black history.

Some of the latter include a slave bill of sale document; runaway slave ads; fines for teaching slaves to read and write; slave auction documents; slavery and the courts; documents from the anti-slavery societies; African art and culture documents; and census records.

He also has a collection of letters from a black Civil war solider stationed in Alexandria at “Camp California” which have never been published. They relate the daily activities at that time. Camp California was situated between the present Van Dorn Metro Station and Duke Street, according to Wood. However, its name is a mystery to him.

“We’re not getting rich but it’s a lot of fun,” Wood said.