Blogger Sherry L. Howard started going to auctions some years ago to find a Loïs Mailou Jones or Palmer Hayden painting at a price she could afford. She hoped that someone somewhere had stashed away artwork by either veteran artist in a basement or attic, and that the works would end up at auction, unwittingly discarded by a relative. She had no such luck finding any of those masters, but she stumbled upon a lot more. Howard realized that buried inside homes are heirlooms that tell the history of African Americans. They're hidden in family Bibles, the everyday tools that people use, the books they read and even the dolls their children played with. Through her blog, Auction Finds, she tries to tell those stories and contributions. She explained some of her discoveries with The Root in the following slideshow.
This album of family photos was a keeper because it showed positive images of African Americans — as they actually existed and not as others saw them: Children playing double Dutch in the street. A young man just back from fishing. A homeowner standing on the porch of his home with Adirondack chairs in the front yard. A father and mother posing with their children.
A simple ticket stub for the 1900 Paris International Exposition led me to "The Exhibit of American Negroes," mounted by W.E.B. Du Bois and others in a building on the Seine River during the world's fair. The exhibit contained photographs, musical compositions, books, poetry, paintings and more showing the contributions of black people. It was an exhibit, Du Bois said, "without apology, or gloss, and above all made by themselves."
The first of these tokens was a male slave modeled after a medallion created by English potter Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 as an abolitionist symbol in Britain. They were called "hard times" tokens and were issued as 1-cent-change pieces in this country in the late 1830s, when money was scarce. The tokens contained ads for businesses as well as political slogans. The female token was sold by women's organizations in their anti-slavery campaigns.
Surprisingly, I found this laminated photo of Cole, one of the all-time greatest of American singers, among a long row of throwaway prints at the estate sale of an Atlantic City, N.J., performer named Paulie Teardrop. Paulie and his brother shared the stage with many well-known performers. The photo was inscribed "To the Teardrops Best of Luck Nat King Cole."
My treks to auction houses turned up some veteran African-American artists who were unfamiliar to me. One of them was Philadelphia artist Henry Bozeman Jones, who primarily painted nature and religious themes. Two of his elderly nieces showed up at auction to buy an oil painting by their Uncle Henry. The painting sold for more than they could afford ($9,250). I have come across other local artists like Jones, once known but now forgotten, and my mission is to tell their stories.
A letter written by a free black Civil War soldier to his wife in 1864 led me to these manumission documents of another soldier. The documents were given to me by a man who had read an article I'd written for my local newspaper about finding African-American history items at auction. The female owner of the slave signed one document allowing him to join the Union Army, and the other seeking $100 in compensation for freeing him.
Every time I saw a book with black children on the cover, I cringed. Most were written 50 years ago by white writers who conformed to the stereotypes that belittled the children. Inez Hogan's books about a little black boy named Nicodemus were among the worst. Fortunately, black writers offered a positive view of black children: W.E.B. Du Bois published a magazine called the Brownies Book. Loïs Mailou Jones illustrated books for Carter G. Woodson's publishing company. Langston Hughes contributed to a series of "First Books."
When I saw David Stone Martin's pen-and-ink drawing of two jazz musicians, I knew there must be more to the story of this artist. And I was right. Smith created some of the most wonderful jazz-album covers, and I had never even heard his name before. He captured Billie Holiday in a halo of red in a 1955 album and stride pianist James P. Johnson in an urban street scene that was truly a work of art.
Spike Lee stopped into an auction I attended recently in New York and bought a Satchel Paige Negro Leagues photo. I understood his passion for the league because I love those guys, too. So when I came across a photo of Terris McDuffie autographed to his sister, I was thrilled. McDuffie was one of the most colorful players in the leagues, carrying on an affair with Effa Manley, wife of the Newark Eagles co-owner Abe Manley (she was the other co-owner), in the 1930s.
This was a gem: A record and filmstrip of Joe Louis' March 1942 charity fight against Abe Simon. It came with a child's Show 'n Tell record player-TV combo from the 1960s. Called "Fighting for His Country," the record contained an interview with Louis answering a question about why he was fighting Bobby Baer for nothing in an earlier charity match to raise money for white soldiers. "Way I figure it, I wasn't fighting for nothing," Louis said. "I was fighting for my country."
When I came across this book, I called my sister — a consistent quick-cash lottery player — to tell her about it. She immediately asked me to look up a number for her. Numbers books were like the Bible in many homes — my sister still has a book — and many people remember a mother, a grandmother, an aunt or an uncle who had one. This book was published in 1927 by Professor Uriah Konje, a pseudonym for Herbert Gladstone Parris.
Topsy Turvy dolls are said to have originated with Southern black women during slavery. There's some question about what they represent, but the black half of the stuffed cloth doll is usually sewn as the servant. In their own way, maybe they symbolically show the connectedness between black and white women despite the roles ascribed to them.