Publish date:

PURPLE MEMORY KEEPER

AT 72, ALAN PAGE HAS COLLECTED OBJECTS OF IMPORTANCE TO HIM. NONE ARE NFL TROPHIES
Author:

SHE WAS white and he was black—except on Sundays, when he was purple and his Afro steamed on the Vikings' sideline. In 1973 the couple built a contemporary house surrounded by old homes and hung in it Warhols—Mao and Marilyn Monroe. "I got the sense of, Who does he think he is moving into this neighborhood?" Diane Page says of her husband, Alan, linchpin of the Purple People Eaters and MVP of the NFL in 1971. "Plus, Chairman Mao was above the fireplace. I think the mailman thought we were communists."

Shag carpet ran wall-to-wall. "Everything," says Alan, "was burnt orange."

By 1988 the Pages had four children living in that house and a visiting friend asked, "Why don't you have black art on the walls? Where's the African-American culture for your children?"

"And the lightbulb went on," says Diane, who began filling the house not just with art but also hundreds of artifacts reflecting the African-American experience. Paintings, poetry and literature were joined by COLORED ONLY signs from Jim Crow diners. A slave collar. A branding iron. The canvas banner a family held as Abraham Lincoln's funeral train passed by. One side says, UNCLE ABE WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU. The other side, AFTER 153 YEARS, STILL READS LIKE A WISH: OUR COUNTRY SHALL BE ONE COUNTRY.

"These objects are a reminder of how we got to where we are today," says Alan. "Of what went on in Charlottesville, what's going on in Washington, even the protests in the NFL. When it comes to the question of removing monuments, there's talk about how they reflect our history and heritage. Well, these objects are our history and our heritage, and the only way to understand that is to see it."

After retiring from his Hall of Fame football career as a defensive tackle, Page served on the Minnesota supreme court for 22 years, until he was required by law to retire 2½ years ago at age 70. "On the court, these objects kept me focused on what was important: ensuring equal justice," he says. This week much of the Pages' collection goes on display at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. The exhibit—called "Testify: Americana From Slavery to Today"—will run from Jan. 8 to Feb. 6, as the city braces for the Super Bowl it's hosting on Feb. 4. The locals are cautiously optimistic about the Vikings. "There's something about this team," concedes Page, who played in—and lost—four Super Bowls, not that you'd know it to visit his house.

"Would you like to see the shrine?" he sighs, descending to the unfinished basement, lighting the lone bulb inside a disused sauna that is knee-deep in football gear he has never displayed. Down here are his Pro Bowl and Vikings helmets, but also a white KKK robe, which he purchased at the Minnesota State fairgrounds. He keeps it in the basement because it's too upsetting to display, but he preserves it for posterity. Indeed, Page wore a black robe for 22 years as a kind of anti-venom. Justice was not just his title but his goal.

"It's not about the flag, not about the anthem," he says of the NFL player demonstrations. "It's about justice. The controversy surrounding the protest is just a red herring, a way to avoid confronting the real issue. And it makes me crazy."

When Minnesota senator Al Franken announced he'd resign in December, Page's name was bruited as a possible replacement. "Doesn't interest me one bit," he says, not least because it would mean rubbing elbows with some of the other senators. "You hold hands with a skunk," he says, "you come out smelling like a skunk."

He did win one recent vote. Students petitioned last year to change the name of Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis after learning that Alexander Ramsey, the state's second governor, had called for the extermination of the Sioux people. And so, by popular student acclaim, it is now Justice Page Middle School, fed by three grade schools—one predominantly white, one predominantly black, one composed predominantly of Somali immigrants. On many Fridays, Page himself stands at the door and high-fives the kids on their way in. "I feel like a rock star," he says.

With his name on a school and his housewares on exhibit, Page sometimes feels like one of those Civil War monuments. "I've felt like a statue almost from the day I started playing football," he says. "People put you on this pedestal, and you find yourself being talked about when you're in the room."

Nowadays he writes children's books with his daughter Kamie, a second-grade teacher. Their latest collaboration, Grandpa Alan's Sugar Shack, is about the maple syrup he and Diane make at their cabin in northern Minnesota. Proceeds from the books go to the Page Education Foundation, which provides grants to students of color in Minnesota—$14 million to more than 6,000 students so far. "Because the only way we're going to change things," Page says, "is one child at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time."

"THESE OBJECTS ARE A REMINDER OF HOW WE GOT TO WHERE WE ARE TODAY," SAYS ALAN, "OF WHAT WENT ON IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, WHAT'S GOING ON IN WASHINGTON, EVEN THE PROTESTS IN THE NFL."

ESSAY

NEWSMAKERS p.20

THE CASE FOR p.24

SI EATS: DAVID CHANG p.26

FACES IN THE CROWD p.28