At Home With John Wiley Price, Art & Doll Collector

I have always wanted to see the inside of John Wiley Price’s Dallas real estate, his house that is, because when you get inside someone’s real estate acquisitions you get inside them. Now I have a picture, a mental picture, at least. Scott Parks at the Dallas Morning News was lucky enough to get a tour of the Price home in historic Oak Cliff (subscription req).

Price told Parks he has only allowed a handful of people inside since he bought the property five years ago. I was impressed to learn how seriously Price collects African art and also — dolls.

But there’s a reason for those dolls, as there is social significance to just about everything in Price’s 4 bedroom, two and a half bath home, which was built in 1916, is about 2700 square feet, and taxed on the rolls at $144,000. It’s listed in “very good shape” and his lot is 50 by 148, about the same as most Park Cities lots. He pays about $3800. in property taxes.

Parks writes that the “historical, two-story house and its contents help illuminate a man who’s become a demon to some and a hero to others.” I think it shows that just about everything he touches in his life reflects and represents the social injustice blacks have endured. And I sympathize — there are times I think about mounting the shrouds of the bra I burned at the Playboy Club in 1976. This is very much the way art can serve a purpose, as some of us like to assign meaning to what we hang on our walls. Price is apparently one of those people.

I am curious — no paintings of the ocean?

So what does it look like on the inside? Parks describes a charming four-bedroom, three-bath home, built in 1920 across from Lake Cliff Park. The outside is a moderate shade of yellow with lavender trim around the windows, no white picket fence but a  decorative wrought-iron fence. This sounded so awful, like an Easter egg actually, so I had to drive over and snap a photo. The home is awesome and the colors are muted — just a hint of the lavender around the windows. A “Mike Rawlings for Dallas Mayor” sign is planted in the front yard.

Price collects this kind of real estate: classic cars. Five sit side by side in a covered carport behind the house, across from a two-story guest house. A favorite, writes Parks, is a 1965 Plymouth 383 Sport Fury.

He says that while the outside looks conventional, the inside is like being in an  African art museum. “Price’s ground-floor dining and living rooms are filled with artifacts from Ivory Coast, the Congo, Gabon, Tanzania and other African nations: wooden statues, primitive musical instruments, effigies of native animals, masks, a ceremonial throne used by a tribal chief. And the county commissioner knows the history of each piece — down to the tribe that produced it and it’s significance. “

He’s been collecting African art for 25 years and loves it. African-American icons, wries Parks, cover the walls: W.E.B. DuBois , abolitionist Frederick Douglass , tap dancer and actor Gregory Hines and Price’s favorite recording artist, Gil Scott-Heron.

He also collects the chilling artifacts of our cruel, bygone society: a metal collar once used to restrain slaves, and a framed handbill advertising for a white landowner’s crude request for slaves to work the fields.

“They must be sturdy and docile enough to work without chains,” it says.

My Lord.

Price has a collection of black dolls from black Barbie (Midge’s friend) to baby dolls to a Sammy Davis Jr. look-alike. He has them arranged in horizontal rows on a double bed in the guest room.

Yes, John Wiley Price collects dolls, but for their psycho-sociological significance. When presented with identical black dolls and white dolls, black children in the 1950’s preferred playing with the white ones and gave them more positive characteristics over the black dolls. In other words, their self-esteem was lower than white children’s.

The project proved racial discrimination and segregation caused black children to develop self-hatred, and lawyers for the NAACP cited it for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case to desegregate public schools.

Price told Parks they are his “Brown vs. Board of Education dolls.”

I’ve gotta get over there and show him how they can be boxed in acrylic and mounted up on the walls right next to the masks. Totally keeps them from getting dusty.

5 Comment