DETROIT — Documents outlining the crime that landed Malcolm X in prison in the 1940s are among some 1,000 recently unearthed items purchased jointly by the civil rights leader's foundation and an independent collector of African-American artifacts.
The documents and other artifacts belonged to late musician Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis, who served in prison with Malcolm X and was one of his closest friends. Jarvis' 1976 pardon paper also is part of the collection, which was recently discovered by accident.
The items had been in a Connecticut storage unit that had gone into default, and were initially auctioned off to a buyer who had no idea what he was bidding on.
The Omaha, Neb.-based Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which oversees the Malcolm X Center located at his birthplace, will house and display the just-arrived archives. It split the cost with Black History 101 Mobile Museum, based in Detroit – the birthplace of the Nation of Islam.
Mobile Museum founder and curator Khalid el-Hakim declined to identify the original buyer or the price the two organizations paid for the trove. Still, even after splitting the cost, he said it's the largest acquisition to date for his mobile museum, which includes Jim Crow-era artifacts, a Ku Klux Klan hood and signed documents by Malcolm X and Rosa Parks.
He said the buyer first contacted the foundation, which in turn contacted el-Hakim.
"Once (the buyer) found out that it was of a significant historical nature, he decided then he didn't want to break the collection up. He wanted to make sure it went to the right home," said el-Hakim, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher now in graduate school at Western Michigan University.
Malcolm X foundation Board President Sharif Liwaru said the public will get its first full look at the collection on May 19, Malcolm X's birthday. El-Hakim said the mobile museum is taking some items on a multistate tour that started in January and includes upcoming stops in Chicago; New York; Cleveland; Lexington, Ky.; and Honolulu.
Among the most interesting is a document of the 1946 sentencing of Jarvis, Malcolm X – then known by his birth name, Malcolm Little – and three others. The yellowed jury report describes the 1945 larceny of a home in Arlington, N.J., in which they stole a pair of gloves, flashlights, a rug, two perfume bottles, 20 pounds of sugar and assorted jewelry. As a bookend, the collection also contains a letter of pardon 30 years later from the state of Massachusetts that exonerates Jarvis of the conviction and sentence.
The collection also reveals an enduring connection between the two Malcolms after their incarceration, Malcolm X's conversion to Islam and his rise to prominence. There's a 72-page scrapbook of Malcolm X's life that was maintained by Jarvis until after his friend's 1965 assassination.
One of the civil rights era's most controversial and compelling figures, Malcolm X rose to fame as the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a movement started in Detroit more than 80 years ago. He proclaimed the black Muslim organization's message at the time: racial separatism as a road to self-actualization and urged blacks to claim civil rights "by any means necessary" and referred to whites as "devils."
After breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964 and making an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he espoused a more internationalist approach to human rights and began emphasizing that he didn't view all whites as racists.
Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor of religion and Africana studies, said there's no doubt that the two Malcolms had been accomplices and good friends. He said it's difficult to assess the collection's historical significance, though there could be some value in Jarvis' published and unpublished book manuscripts, particularly to the extent that they describe their relationship before and after their incarceration.
For his part, el-Hakim said the court paperwork "represents one of the pivotal times in Malcolm X's life," and has never seen the document in all of his years of research and collecting, which he began more than two decades ago as a college student. But he's also grateful to discover and share pieces from Jarvis, who deserves his own scholarly treatment.
"You find out there's two Malcolms here – one that developed spiritually in Islam and (the other) in Christianity," el-Hakim said.