Dr. Charles Smith was born in 1940 in New Orleans and grew up in the Chicago area. His memories of attending the funeral of Emmet Till at the age of 15 and his experiences in combat as a marine in the Vietnam War had a profound impact on the artist and his work. Driven by his anger at the pervasive racism in America and his suffering from post-traumatic stress, Smith began creating signs and sculptures in tribute to the more than 7,000 African Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
Located in Aurora, Illinois, the site, which Smith named ‘The African-American Heritage Museum and Black Veteran’s Archive,’ developed into a memorial rooted in the experiences of African American people, commemorating pivotal moments in individual and collective life. Smith adopted the title ‘Dr.’ to convey the wisdom he drew from his experiences and studies of United States history.
In 2000, the Kohler Foundation worked with Smith to conserve nearly 600 sculptures from his site in Aurora and gifted them to museums around the country. Since 2000, he has been working on a second art environment in Hammond, Louisiana. Like his environment in Aurora, the site includes a house, rocks, broken concrete and hundreds of figures — famous, historical and everyday — probing the African-American experience from the time of the diaspora to the present. Both sites are intense and impossible to experience complacently. The sculptural landscape continues to evolve as sculptures are exposed to the elements, removed for inclusion in exhibitions or sold to collectors and as Smith continues to add new figures responding to current events.
Watch a video about Dr. Charles Smith and his museum: