The discovery of the story behind a family heirloom compels Victoria Scott-Miller to champion authors of color with her bookstore.
by Courtney Napier | photography by Eamon Queeney
What would you do if you held a link to the humanity of a near-mythical figure in history? Through a serendipitous series of circumstances, Victoria Scott-Miller came to possess such a treasure, and it set the course for her future in an unexpected way.
Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, the Scott family lived a life surrounded by art and beauty. Father Victor Scott was a freelance photographer, plugged in to the opulent lifestyle of famous friends like Lena Horne and Al Jarreau. These relationships were exciting, but also opened him up to the world of drugs. By 1986, he and his wife, Pamela, had just celebrated their daughter Victoria’s first birthday and were expecting their second daughter, Jessica. If they were going to survive as a family, they had to make a drastic change. They left behind the life they knew and moved to Philadelphia to begin the road to recovery.
During a rummage trip to the basement of their new home, Victor Scott found a Bible trimmed in gold. His wife noticed right away that it was special. She pleaded with her husband not to pawn the book to satisfy his addiction, but after realizing that this was a losing battle, she insisted on at least keeping the thick stack of papers tucked inside.
The years passed. Victor Scott overcame his addiction, but the couple divorced in the 1990s. Pamela Scott had the papers examined by Sotheby’s—they were indeed valuable, appraised at $50,000—but even though she was by then a single mother and needed the money more than ever, she declined their offer. Her intuition said that this possession was more significant than money. When Victor Scott passed in 2017, Pamela Scott finally gave the papers to her eldest daughter, Victoria Scott-Miller.
Scott-Miller immediately went to work to untangle their origin story. The handwritten notes, she soon discovered, were an exchange between legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Nathanial Knight, a white bookstore owner and justice of the peace. As described in his biography, Douglass met Knight in his Baltimore bookstore, Greedy Reid’s, at just 14 years old. Defying the law, it was there that Douglass purchased his first book, the Columbian Orator, which had a major impact on the trajectory of Douglass’s life.
In January of 2019, the Miller family was contacted by a prestigious historian, who offered them $2 million for the papers. All they had to do was agree to a non-disclosure agreement concerning her family’s role in the discovery of the letters, allowing the origin story to begin with him and his institution.
The money was tempting. Scott-Miller and her husband, Duane Miller, had just relocated to Raleigh. Miller had been medically discharged from the military, and Scott-Miller had left a teaching position to care for their boys. They were on food stamps, just making ends meet.
Then she had a conversation with John Muller, a Baltimore historian and friend of the Douglass family. “It was as if he delivered a message from our past,” says Scott-Miller. “He said, ‘If you sell these papers, you will no longer be part of this story.’”
She declined the offer with a new thought: “How can we safeguard our legacy the way that my mom did for us?”
Scott-Miller’s son, Langston, had just started writing his own stories. So the Millers went to a bookstore and played a game: count the number of children’s books with Black protagonists on display, extra points if the author is also Black. After over an hour, they counted just five books. At that moment, the vision clarified.
“We thought about what it would look like to have a space that provided books with characters that looked like our children,” says Scott-Miller. “Then we thought about what it would look like if we provided that space.”
Scott-Miller had just received a gift of $250 from her mother to help make ends meet. She decided to use $225 to buy her first round of children’s books that featured Black authors and characters, and the remaining $25 fed her family for the week. Scott-Miller hosted her first pop-up bookshop on May 3 of last year, and Liberation Station was born.
Having a mobile store was a key part of the vision. The Miller family was familiar with moving around in the military, and they also understood that—due to forces like gentrification—neighborhoods of color are constantly changing. “We could set up a bookstore somewhere right now, and that would be great,” she says, “but what about the kids who are displaced and homeless across our city? Why can’t the bookstore be in their hotel room? We have to think about accessibility.”
In just a year, Liberation Station has seen astronomical success. They began a fruitful relationship with VAE Raleigh in August, when the pop-up bookstore earned their Awesome Grant for their Walk & Read program, which hosted storytime gatherings in Chavis Park and Pullen Park. They hosted storytime at SparkCon, and book readings and signings with local authors of color during VAE’s Writing On The Wall celebration. To kick off 2020, Liberation Station hosted a pop-up for the release of My N.C. from A to Z, a children’s book by Michelle Lainer, executive director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, illustrated by Dare Coulter.
This year, Liberation Station will have programs across the state, including developing culturally sensitive programming for several public schools in Wake County and a creative collaboration with the African American Cultural Festival.
Although her family encouraged Scott-Miller to create Liberation Station, the bookstore is the product of Scott-Miller’s own extraordinary imagination. “I had to practice arriving in my power,” she says. “It’s one thing to know your purpose, but it’s another thing to fully arrive in it. For me, that means recognizing that this is an extension of my brilliance, my giftedness, and my genius, and fully owning that.”
In March, Scott-Miller connected with a second near-mythical figure in history, when Liberation Station received the Obama Foundation certification. Scott-Miller explains: “This certification gives us the opportunity to garner federal partnerships and gives us access to a global network of advocates and mentors.”
What started as a mission to safeguard her family’s legacy became a calling to provide access to literature in which children of color—and everyone connected to them—can see themselves. “The representation we provide through Liberation Station bookstore is necessary,” Scott-Miller says. “We are the living link to this community, and to narratives that must be shared.”