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Collecting our history.

IT CAN BE SAID THAT JACQUELINE Lanier never began collecting black memorabilia. She just refused to allow herself or any other family member to throw anything away, including the dolls she played with as a child. "I never had a white doll," she says proudly. "Even when I was growing up you could find black dolls."

The home of the 47-year-old Baltimore native is filled with dated collectibles, but then she has been indulging in this hobby for 42 years. In her living room, there are historic photos, including a picture of the Buffalo Soldiers and one of famed entertainer Josephine Baker. In her kitchen, there's the Bull Durham smoking tobacco posters--which show blacks with big red lips standing in front of a general store--and Aunt Jemima-type spice containers and cookie jars.

Lanier is one of a growing number of African-Americans who collect and sell such memorabilia. Their ranks--reportedly more than 50,000--include such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, Cicely Tyson, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Anita Baker.

Throughout the country, collectors rummage through flea markets, haunt estate sales and antique shops and visit the memorabilia shows that now tour the U.S., searching for those special items that strike their fancy with an eye toward enhancing their personal holdings.

Malinda Saunders has been organizing black memorabilia shows throughout the country since 1984. When she started, a typical show would draw about 17 vendors and 500 browsers. Today, her shows draw more than 70 vendors each and usually attract more than 1,800 visitors. She estimates that 85% of those attending her earlier shows were white, but says that now 75% of attendees are black. Saunders operates That Certain Place, a memorabilia shop in Hyattsville, Md.

Collecting black memorabilia, like collecting anything else, is a highly speculative art, experts warn. There are no guarantees that items will increase in value or even hold their present worth. Collecting for profit should be left to the experts, experienced collectors warn.

The increasing popularity of black memorabilia also makes this area attractive to people looking to pass reproductions off as originals. Experts warn that buyers, when spending larger amounts, should stick to reputable dealers and antique shops to ensure legal recourse if needed. They should also consult appraisers whenever feasible.


For Lanier, her collector's passion feeds her professional life. The possessor of one of the most extensive black memorabilia collections in the country, Lanier is the historian and the development coordinator of the Heritage Museum of Art in Baltimore (410-664-6711).

One of Lanier's bedrooms contains movie posters of black films dating back decades, and every room is filled with first edition books, manuscripts and even a few slave documents.

For those whose tastes run more toward entertainment, there is even an original program and menu from Harlem's famed Cotton Club.

A former jazz radio disc jockey who gained a portion of her collectibles through connections made on the job, Lanier lectures at schools and often invites children into her home to examine the items she's collected.

"If we don't teach our history to our children, others will and it will be misinterpreted," Lanier says, explaining part of the motivation behind her dogged pursuit of black memorabilia.

It was during a trip to New Orleans in 1988 that Jean Pierce Jones--who operates a black memorabilia shop in Philadelphia called Jemima--fell in love with black collectibles. She was at a garage sale when she spotted a cast-iron black boy eating a watermelon. "I got so excited, I just had to have it," Jones recalls, unconcerned by the stereotype involving blacks and that juicy fruit.

When downsizing cost Jones her job as an executive assistant last year, she seized the opportunity to pursue full-time her love of black memorabilia by opening her own collectibles shop.

While maintaining an interest in the full spectrum of black memorabilia, Jones is particularly intrigued by objects with watermelons. Her "melonmania" is apparent to anyone visiting the quaint shop Jones operates in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

The sign outside her shop includes a watermelon in its design, as does her business card. The watermelon motif also figures prominently in her small shop, which is crowded with an eclectic assortment of artifacts.

Many of the collectibles at Jemima may prove distasteful for those who are unwilling to face the grim and painful realities of the black experience in America. A "For Rent to Colored" sign adorns one wall; a cartoon from the Sept. 8, 1907, Baltimore American Sunday paper containing black characters is entitled "Sambo and His Funny Noises," and there's a small wooden clock featuring a drawing of a charcoal-colored boy with big lips and the words, "Ah would go to de north pole fuh yo' mah honey."

Some of Jones' items have been garnered from family members, but she gets the majority of them by scouring flea markets, yard sales and antique shops. Such items have always been collected, Jones notes, but until recently white collectors had a corner on the market. "Collecting is a disease. It's like a passion," explains Jones, who specifies that anything marked with a red dot in her shop--which includes family photos--is not for sale, at any price.

Currie Ballard of Langston, Okla., has a 6,700-piece collection that includes African maps dating back to 1670 and a letter from a runaway slave. Ballard, who is the curator of black exhibits for the Oklahoma Historical Society, says his collection is worth about $150,000. "I started 17 years ago while I was in college," Ballard recalls. "It was from a love of learning about our people's history."

Ballard says interest in black memorabilia was virtually nonexistent when he started collecting. "I can remember going into antique shops and asking for black items and people bringing me skillets and pans," he recalls.


Generally, the items commonly referred to as black collectibles were produced from the late 1800s to the 1950s. Some people are offended by the items because many of them portray blacks negatively.

The majority of collectibles are not degrading or offensive, but it's the items that fall into those categories that have drawn media attention. "The more comical, the more fun it seems to make of black people; the more degrading, the more it brings in," says Richard Opfer, a leading collector in Baltimore, who believes that negative images drive the black memorabilia market.

Others argue that black memorabilia represents a wide array of items, most positive but some negative, all of which are a part of African-American history. "People think it represents the negative things," says Jeannette B. Carson, founder of the Black Memorabilia Collectors Association (BMCA). "That is not true."

Others agree. "This is history. It's nothing to be ashamed of," says Saunders, who in 1995 has scheduled black memorabilia shows in Dallas, Denver and Silver Spring, Md. "We should never forget our history."

Collector Sharon Banks Hart adds: "There are so many aspects of our culture that you can collect. To continue to view all of these items as negative is taking a narrow viewpoint, even from a historical perspective." Hart produces a newsletter, Collecting Our Culture ($35 for four issues; c/o BMCA, 2482 Devoe Terrace, Bronx, NY 10468).


There are some obvious places memorabilia "affectionadoes" can go to find black collectibles--flea markets, antique shops and memorabilia shows. But it's the less obvious places where prospective collectors should start the search. "Look in your attics, in your trunks, in any place where things are stored," says Carson of the BMCA. "When most people come to the shows, one of their first reactions is, 'We had something just like that.'"

Others suggest starting by expressing your interest to relatives, especially older ones, and getting their permission to canvass their homes for items that may be of interest. Carson, who for seven years produced a magazine called Black Ethnic Collectibles, says many items routinely discarded have monetary value and that value keeps increasing. "I have a cookie jar that I bought six or seven years ago for $50. Today, it's selling for $250," Carson says.

Interesting items can also routinely be found at garage and estate sales and, yes, even junk stores.


Black memorabilia categories include: advertising items, ashtrays, banks, books, bubble gum cards, dolls, doorstops, entertainment-related mementos (such as posters and publicity stills), figurines, furnishings and decorations, glassware and household items.

Kitchen items, magazines, masks, newspapers, photographs, buttons, planters, postcards, prints, sports items and toys and games are other collector categories.

So what are the hottest items? According to Ballard, the Oklahoma collector, the hottest collectibles are objects associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, an autographed photo of the civil rights leader can cost $4,500. Other popular items include slave bills of sale ($375 to $500); old photos dating from before World War II; autographs of black sports figures, such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis or Jack Johnson; items from the civil rights movement, especially things associated with the Black Panther Party; and pictures, books, posters and other objects associated with black leader Marcus Garvey.


But before you go racing off to the nearest memorabilia show, be sure to bring your checkbook or credit card. You can expect to pay $195 for an Aunt Jemima spice set and $65 for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose salt and pepper shakers; $155 for an original Cream of Wheat poster (circa 1916) of a boy jumping a fence; or $55 for a Cream of Wheat tin from the 1930s and 1940s.

A figurine of a boy holding a watermelon sells for about $30; a first edition of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings garners $100, while a first edition of James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone sells for $250; and an original theatrical poster of Josephine Baker (circa 1925-1946) can cost between $6,000 and $10,000.

Experienced collectors advise that you consult a price guide, such as The Black Memorabilia Price Guide ($13.25; P.O. Box 70346, Washington, DC 20024) before buying.


There are no hard-and-fast rules about prices, and the increasing popularity of black memorabilia insures that unscrupulous individuals will try to pass off reproductions as originals, collectors warn.

If an item appears too good to be true, it probably is. If an 80-year-old photo appears totally undated, it probably is a reproduction, not an original. Experts tell you to look, look--and look some more. It is only through experience, they advise, that true bargains can be immediately spotted and dubious or inflated items avoided.

Even if it is as good as advertised, it's a good idea to have the artifact appraised, especially if the price is more than nominal. "It always comes down to when is it an important amount [of money being spent], and then it's no different than a house or a car. It makes sense to have someone else check it out," explains Alex Rosenberg, president of the Appraisers Association of America in New York.

The association, which has about 1,000 members, will mail buyers a list of three approved appraisers in their area or will send out their complete membership list for $14.95 (AAA, 386 Park Avenue South, Suite 2000, New York, NY 10016).

Rosenberg says buyers should only hire appraisers who work on either an hourly rate or by an established day fee. Avoid appraisers who base their fees on the value of the item being appraised.

Once you buy an item, Rosenberg says, you should insure it. Normally, homeowners and renters' policies cover such items. However, if you have a large collection, you may need a separate fine arts insurance policy.

Buyers must also be sure to store items correctly to preserve them. "Generally, go to people who have knowledge in that field--museums and other collectors. Believe me, they've made plenty of mistakes in the past, so they know exactly how things should be stored," Rosenberg says.

Before buying any item, you should look around. Visit several places to compare prices and then decide on your specific areas of interest, Saunders suggests. "Black memorabilia is such a large field. You really need to know what you're interested in before you start looking," she emphasizes.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:African American memorabilia
Author:Lowery, Mark
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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