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Local collector documents civil unrest in the 60s

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Gregory “Beau” Hill collects equal right movement memorabilia from the Vietnam War-era displayed in an exhibit he called “Spirit of the Sixths.” He estimates he has the largest collection in Montana and possibly the largest west of the Mississippi. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

By Mira Brody EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

BIG SKY – Hundreds of small pins dot the walls of Gregory “Beau” Hill’s home; they’re organized into frames, the largest of which is 4 or 5 feet wide.. Each pin represents someone—the pin’s former wearer—who hoped for change during a wave of equal rights movements in the 1960s. 

The pins, alongside the occasional flag, photo or newspaper clipping, were collected by Hill over a span of 14 years from auctions and estate sales and are meticulously organized and preserved into an exhibit he calls The Spirit of the Sixths.

There are two red and white flags made by the United Farm Workers union in 1962 when Hispanic fieldworkers fought for fair pay, benefits and better treatment for farmworkers. They are original silkscreens, and imperfect—Hill points out the fold down the middle severing the faded red fabric.

 “It wasn’t how good it looked, it was what it meant,” said Hill. “They had a lot of pride in it.”

Another red, white and blue frame contains presidential race buttons, including those of Richard Nixon and John F. Kenney, as well as some lesser-known names, such as Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress and the first black woman to run for president. Hill hopes to build his collection of black civil rights memorabilia—just last month he was outbid on a letter written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which sold for $27,000.

The largest collection, however, is of Vietnam War-era memorabilia spanning almost every major city in the country, including framed photos of the victims of the Kent State shooting, a headline reading “The Chicago 8,” an image of a man burning his draft card, another bloodied from a police bat during a protest, and pins reading “When I die I know I’ll go to heaven because I’ve already spent my time in hell,” and “Hell no, we won’t go.”

A smaller pin, on the far right, is jet-black, with a single number handwritten on its face: 45,000—the number of U.S. soldiers who had lost their lives in the Vietnam War by New Years of 1971.

“I look for something that means something. This one right here, somebody wore that all over the place. Somebody wore that for years,” Hill said, pointing to different pins that had various degrees of water, mold and sun damage. He says many of them sell for thousands at online auctions. 

He pulls out a Mad Magazine pin he says he wears out and about sometimes. It’s an original, purchased in 1958 for about 50 cents. Although not as significant as the others he keeps behind glass, he guesses it’s appreciated to about $150—a standing example of how unaware we are of our role in history until its is too late. Hill says this is possibly the largest collection of its kind in the state, maybe even west of the Mississippi. 

“I try to not have any duplicates,” he said. “It’s hard because I have so many of them. I literally have to have a picture on my phone and check.”

Hill was finally able to finish the Spirit of the Sixths after a stroke last June left him with some extra time while he was recovering. He was also able to make some progress on his house, another project born from his habit of collecting. A skilled carpenter by trade, Hill moved to Big Sky from Northern California in 1975 right out of high school, hoping the high-altitude mountain air would help his allergies, and has stayed ever since. Much like the frames on the wall, the house he designed frames nearby peaks in its carefully placed windows.

Hill hopes someday it’ll serve as an educational piece, possibly in a gallery or school, somewhere people can read them all and fully realize the spirit of the sixties. “I spent so much time just trying to put it together I never really gave a whole lot of thought about where I’d like to have it,” he said. Of those who have seen his collection, their reactions are sometimes assertive.

“I’ve had people look at this and flip out and want to punch me,” Hill said. “The thing is, I’m not trying to point out any particular point of view.”

“People close their minds. And a closed mind is a terrible thing because it’s wasted,” he said, paraphrasing the famous and widely adapted United Negro College Fund slogan. “Is that how that saying goes?”

The emotional verbiage on these artifacts and stories behind them are a reminder that unrest is something our country’s history is familiar with. Just this month, Bozeman hosted two Black Lives Matter rallies and there is a peaceful gathering in the works for Big Sky Friday, June 17. These expressions of first amendment rights prove that assembling is something we’ve been doing to gain traction on equal rights for generations, and continue to do today.

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