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History in His Hands

A small museum reflects one man's determination to show what African Americans have accomplished--and what they've endured.

March 11, 2001|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon, Muhammad Ali will rub shoulders with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. Soon as he gets his head on straight. And his arms. The Latex and foam statue being crafted by Oran Z Belgrave will join dozens of others the multifaceted amateur historian has on display in his year-old black history museum in the Crenshaw district.

Oran Z--who prefers to drop his surname because it is a reminder of his slave ancestry--crafts the figures from scratch or from existing statues in his quest to preserve African American history. He hopes to have the Ali figure, complete with autographed gloves, ready for display in time to coincide with the release of a film about the world-renowned boxer.

In all, Oran Z, a hairstylist by trade (the "world's fastest master hair weaver," he proclaims), has about 40 figures in various stages of development. He rotates the displays often so that frequent visitors can learn about different historic figures. Oran's Pan African Black Facts and Wax Museum also houses masks, quilts and other artifacts brought back from his many trips to different parts of Africa, as well as displays of inventions by African Americans.

He also stays on the lookout for items "by blacks, for blacks, about blacks or against blacks." Take the small figurine that caught his eye in a Florida gas station a few years ago. Push on the head of the male "Black Power" doll and its genitals pop up. Definitely an "against blacks" find, with its stereotyping and trivialization of the civil rights movement. Such a negative display, along with other demeaning "gag" items, is a reminder of the racism blacks have endured, he says.

"I don't consider myself just a collector," he adds. "I'm more like a steward of African American history."

In time, he sees the building (which also houses studios where he hopes to record and photograph local acts and models) as a multipurpose gathering point for the community. And he is planning a comprehensive walking tour to include his museum and the nearby Museum of African American Art and the Valley of the Kings Museum.

"Even after my grandchildren are old, hopefully, the collection will still be growing," he says, "so we can show the world that blacks have done great things."

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Oran's Pan African Black Facts and Wax Museum, 3742 W. Martin Luther King Blvd., Los Angeles.

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