Collecting Our History: How Black Memorabilia Shapes the Present Through the Past

Collectors say that positive and negative images of black people in art are reminders of what we’ve lived through and what we’ve overcome. 

Exhibits at the National Black Memorabilia, Fine Art & Crafts Show, in April 2016 in Gaithersburg, Md. Lindsey Johson

Images of African Americans, whether they are racist portraits of chocolate-skinned people with big red lips or positive images of iconic blacks such as President Barack Obama and actress Cicely Tyson, have a lot to do with how people of color see themselves. Are they pretty and smart, or are they ugly and stupid?

People like Lindsey Johnson, CEO and president of L. Johnson Promotions Ltd., think that seeing images of both types helps teach the African-American community about its past and sends a message about the future.

“Items which are made in the image of African Americans, or about African Americans … be they positive or negative, reflect how we were viewed and treated as African Americans in this country,” explains Johnson. “It’s important that people understand what we’ve gone through in this country, from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow. People need to understand what we’ve gone through and what it’s taken for us to get where we are.”

Johnson is the force behind the Black Memorabilia Fine Art & Crafts Show, which will be held Feb. 11 at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum; he is also founder of the National Black Memorabilia, Fine Art & Crafts Show, which will be held April 8 and 9 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg, Md. Visitors will be able to buy and sell fine art and crafts from black artisans as well as slavery artifacts and political and civil rights memorabilia. Along with the commerce will be educational exhibitions on everything from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Johnson also promotes a similar show held annually at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Maryland, where students are admitted for free. “The exhibits have an educational focus and do a good job of educating people and teaching them about our history. … We reach out to high schools and colleges in the area,” Johnson says. “Young people, if they understand the history, they understand the importance of getting involved in the political process.”

Education and promoting positive black images are also what drives Ellen Ferebee, president and founder of the Harlem-based Morrisania Doll Society. The motto on the front page of the website reads: “Dolls Are Not Just Child’s Play.” Ferebee has been collecting dolls since the 1990s.

“Why collect dolls? It’s about having images that look like you. We need to be reminded that we are special,” Ferebee says. “Dolls date all the way back to slavery. Most of the dolls I have seen from enslaved Africans were dolls made from scraps of cloth. They were beautifully executed and intricate, and you can tell they were made by people who have a lot of skill.”

Doll by Pamela Ekkens
Doll by Pamela EkkensCourtesy of Morrisania Doll Society

Ferebee is hosting the annual Harlem Holiday Doll Show and Sale on Dec. 3, at the Dywer Cultural Center. The work of Brooklyn Dollworks artist Valerie A. Gladstone and Kellan Waverly’s Kels Mini Mansion Dollhouses will be on display. She says prices will range from $10 to thousands of dollars for porcelain, cloth or composite body dolls, some with high heels and some with sterilized poodle hair to get a realistic texture.

“Little children need images that look like them,” Ferebee says.

At the higher end of African Americana and fine art sales is the legendary Wyatt Houston Day of Swann Auction Galleries. The 76-year-old puts together the annual Printed and Manuscript African Americana sales, and the auction house also offers sales of African-American fine art. Revenues from the October 2016 fine art event were $2.1 million; the next African Americana sale is set for March 30, 2017 and a fine art sale is scheduled for April 6, 2017. Day founded his department 20 years ago and says he’s in this business to enlighten people.

“I fell in love with Africa when I was about 10. I couldn’t read enough about expeditions and explorations, and as I got a little older, I wanted to be an archeologist,” says Day, who was a musician before becoming a self-taught researcher and cataloger at Swann. “I realized at one point, there was so much unknown about the African experience in the Americas. It fulfilled my dream of being an archeologist—like I’m excavating for the truth.”

In addition to fine works by artists such as Norman Lewis and Kara Walker, Swann focuses on historical African-American literary material, such as the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He says one of the reasons he created the annual sales was to create a conduit for institutions and collectors with ample disposable income to shed more light on African-American history.

“The average person had no way of knowing they could acquire the actual first edition of the Frederick Douglass narrative or a slave-sale document—some hard-core piece of African-American history that was more a part of the real experience rather than the created experience around black memorabilia.”

Day admits that the material doesn’t come cheap but says that the contribution to history is worth it. He isn’t a fan, though, of the racist artifacts that many have collected over the years.

“That kind of material has always been tremendously popular, and many black people collected it,” Day acknowledges. In fact, there is such an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, next to a wall of positive images of blacks meant to offset the stereotypes.

Day says that one of his most extraordinary finds was an Arabic manuscript written in 1831 by a slave named Omar Ibn Said (pdf). It was part of the first sale Day organized in 1996, and he says it is something that conveys an idea rather than words and sentences.

“He was a Muslim imam, only it was written by an African-American slave in America in his native written language,” Day says reverently. “It was a tremendous find.”

As promoter Johnson says, “It is important for young people to understand our history so that they’ll do what they can to keep it from being repeated and to make it better.”

Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.

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