As It Happens

This woman collected $3.3M worth of African American art — then donated it

Patricia Turner Walters is donating her collection to Howard U, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., in her late husband's name. 

Patricia Turner Walters gives art to Howard University in honour of her late husband Ronald W. Walters

Patricia Turner Walters is donating more than 150 pieces — valued at $2.5 million US ($3.3. million Cdn.) — to Howard University in honour of her late husband, Ronald W. Walters. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images)


In the mid-'80s, Patricia Turner Walters went to a holiday party that changed her life. 

She and her husband Ronald W. Walters, a professor, were invited to the home of his Howard University colleague Anita Moore-Hackney. 

"It was absolutely just a wonderful experience. Her walls were just full of African American art," Patricia Turner Walters told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I didn't quite know what it was that I was looking at. I just knew that my life was really changed forever." 

After that experience, Walters — who worked for decades as a social worker — made it her mission to collect African American art. She started buying up whatever caught her eye. And she got a lot of it for cheaper than she would now, she said, because black art was underappreciated and undervalued.

Now she's donating 152 pieces — both prints and originals, valued at about $3.3 million — to Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., in her late husband's name. 

This untitled landscape painting by Robert Duncanson is part of the collection Patricia Turner Walters gifted to the Howard University Gallery of Art. (The Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection/Howard University Gallery of Art)

"I think it's for the greater good. And I'm all about, at this point in my life, being about my husband's continued legacy," Walters said. 

"I know that this art collection going to Howard ... which he absolutely loved, will make up for the fact that it's not living with me anymore."

Who was Ronald W. Walters?

Ronald W. Walters was a professor of political science at Howard University for 25 years, and a life-long civil rights activist. He died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 72.

He was a prolific author and a leading scholar on the politics of race. He helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, and was the director of the African American Leadership Institute.

Education and activism where his "twin loves," his wife said. 

"He felt that young people were the key to our future as black people throughout the African diaspora, and that education was very important," Patricia Turner Walters said. "But he also felt that they needed to organize themselves to help the people behind them."

Elizabeth Catlett's 1960 sculpture Glory is one of the artworks gifted by Walters to the school. (The Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection/Howard University Gallery of Art)

In 1958, when he was a young man, Walters organized one of the first lunch counter sit-ins at a drug store in Wichita, Kan., two years before the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins, often credited with igniting civil rights movements in the South.

Patricia Turner Walters says she didn't learn that story until she and her husband were married 25 years. 

"I said, 'Ron ... why did you never share this story with me?' I said, 'This is historical,'" she said. "And he just did not think it was a big deal."

'Collecting to preserve our culture'

While her husband worked to uplift African Americans by teaching and organizing, Patricia did the same by collecting art. 

Asked whether her husband shared her passion, she chuckled. "He could have cared less," she said.

That is, until she sat him down one day at the kitchen table and explained it to him in terms he could understand.

"I said, 'I'm collecting to preserve our culture and to preserve our history.... You're uplifting the race, you're helping to educate our generation of students, and so we have something in common,'" she said.

"And it was just like a light bulb had gone off in his head. Truly. He got it."

Lois Mailou Jones' Houdain Pas De Calais, a 1947 Watercolor on paper, is also part of the new Howard collection. (The Ronald W. and Patricia Walters Collection/Howard University Gallery of Art)

Her collection is wide-ranging and includes 18th-century masters like Robert S. Duncanson and Harlem Renaissance artists like Norman Lewis.

It also features contemporary artists, including a print by Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of former president Barack Obama that hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

"It runs the gamut, truly, of African American artists," she said.

Howard University president Wayne A. I. Frederick said in a press release that it is "an incredible honour to receive this generous gift of precious art from the Walters family."

"This collection of sculptures and portraits and paintings will be an excellent complement to our gallery and a beneficial focus of training in our art history courses," he said.

Walters says she would never be able to amass this kind of collection today because the popularity — and the price — of African American has exploded.

That's why she says she's happy the collection now belongs to Howard University, where young black students will be able to see it and study it.

"I'm hoping that they will have also educated themselves about Dr. Walters and who he was and what he meant to the world and to the U.S. in particular, and that they could see the brilliance of his mind," she said.

"And also look at the art and see the brilliance of the art."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Patricia Turner Walters produced by Katie Geleff. 


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