For Many Black Museums, It’s “Buy-Buy History”
When Charles L. Blockson heard in November that the Christie’s
auction house in New York had provoked an angry telephone protest by
callers who were irate over a scheduled auction of American slavery
documents, it came as little surprise to him that auction company
officials had not considered the vehement public opposition to such a
According to Blockson, who is curator of the Charles L. Blockson
Afro-American Collection at Temple University, the auction of documents
relating to slavery merely represented business as usual to the
community of traders and collectors of historical artifacts. Over the
past four decades, he has watched the trade in what is known as
Afro-Americana become big business.
“There are more than 50,000 collectors of [B]lack memorabilia in the
United States, many of whom started it as a hobby but now view their
finds as money-making ventures,” according to USA Today.
According to experts Ralph and Terry Kovels, authors of Kovels’
Antiques and Collectables Price List 1998, a third of all Americans are
active memorabilia collectors.
Black museum professionals and collectors, such as Blockson, say
interest in Black history artifacts and memorabilia is at an all-time
high. The Christie’s incident represents just a small part of a larger
picture. Among historical artifacts and documents relating to African
American history, slavery- related items are valued most highly by
collectors and dealers.
Blockson, who has been collecting rare books and documents since the
1940s, says that profit- seeking private dealers and collectors harbor
very little sensitivity and sentiment about the buying and selling of
artifacts relating to slavery. They are motivated purely by the
“I’m opposed to the collection of Black history artifacts and documents for profit, but it’s reality,” Blockson says.
The sentiments of African Americans are at odds with profiteering
collectors and dealers, according to Blockson, because Blacks would
rather see their history preserved than traded for profit. Collectors
like Blockson, instead of pursuing rare and valuable artifacts for
eventual profit, usually donate their acquisitions to an institution.
In 1982, Blockson donated a collection of some 20,000 documents and
rare books to Temple University. He became curator of the collection,
which has since grown to 150,000 catalogued items.
An Everyday Occurrence
Museums and universities depend heavily upon the generosity of
donors who make collections of historic artifacts and documents
available to them. However, organizations acquire many artifacts and
documents by buying them on the open market, as any profit- seeking
collector or dealer would.
“I’m not as horrified as the uninitiated might be,” is the reaction
of Debra Newman Ham, professor of history at Morgan State University
and the curator of a major exhibit of African American materials at the
Library of Congress. (see story on page 27)
“The buying and selling of historical materials is very common. This
made the big news, but it happens every day,” she says, adding, “I
personally am more pleased that we are valuing our history and we are
valuing our tradition than I am turned off by the market in African
“If we are to claim our history, we’ve got to go out and buy it,”
says Dr. Thomas D. Battle, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research
Center at Howard University.
Battle says Christie’s is not alone in auctioning off items relating
to American slavery. He says auction houses have engaged in such trade
for “as long as I can remember.” What the public knows even less about
is the trade of Afro-Americana that takes place outside the auction
houses among collectors and dealers, according to Battle.
“The reality is that Black history is bought and sold every day,” Battle adds.
Battle says that while numerous Blacks are active in trading and
collecting Afro-Americana, there’s a great need for Blacks in general
to get busy with maintaining and preserving their own family artifacts
A Telephone Protest
Christie’s plan to auction off eight slavery documents initially
came under fire from New York State Rep. David Patterson and Black
Entertainment Television broadcaster Tavis Smiley. The documents
included posters announcing a reward for runaway slaves, a slave
auction poster announcing “Chancery Sale of Eight Likely Negros,” and a
receipt for “a mulatto boy named Joe.” The items were part of a
collection of Civil War-era autographs and manuscripts being sold on
behalf of an unidentified family, according to The Washington Post.
Patterson and Smiley complained that while Christie’s observed a
policy prohibiting it from auctioning off items relating directly to
the Holocaust, the company did not have a similar policy on items
relating to American slavery.
On November 11, Smiley told listeners of the nationally syndicated
“Tom Joyner Morning Show” radio program about the planned auction. And
he made a point of noting that Christie’s Holocaust policy did not
extend to artifacts relating to American slavery. Listeners to the
program, which is not heard in the New York City area and yet claims to
have a national audience of three million people, were urged to call
Christie’s in protest.
Call they did, and in response to the ensuing protest, the owners of
the documents had Christie’s pull the items from the auction. The
auction house also announced that the owners had decided to donate the
documents to an institution, which still has yet to be named, for
A statement issued by Christie’s said: “It is the intention of the
consignor to donate this property to a museum or historical society
that collects African-American history.”
A spokeswoman for Christie’s said the protest will make the auction
house more sensitive to how artifacts and documents relating to slavery
are handled in the future.
An Expensive Tradition
Blacks have a long tradition of preserving their history in America,
dating back to the eighteenth century, explains Blockson. That
tradition was institutionalized by historically Black colleges and
universities, which became major repositories for the preservation of
African American history. Howard University, Hampton University, Fisk
University, and Tuskegee University are cited by Blockson as having
important historical research centers and museums.
More recently, Black history museums have opened in Detroit,
Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, and other places. The establishment of
such centers has greatly expanded the infrastructure behind African
American history collection.
However, some experts worry that despite the tradition of Black
institutions in historic preservation and the establishment of new
museums, the market in Afro- Americana is making it increasingly more
difficult to develop, establish, and enhance collections.
“The vast majority of our history is in the hands of White people,”
says Currie Ballard, a historian-in-residence at Langston University in
Oklahoma. “They have priced us out of our own legacy.”
Ballard has been collecting African American history artifacts and
documents for the past twenty years. In that time, he has amassed one
of the largest African American history collections by a single
individual. His collection of 12,000 items includes maps of Africa from
the 1600s, hand-forged slave shackles with the original keys, 140-
year-old letters from runaway slaves, Amos ‘n Andy sheet music, and
collections of autographs and photographs of famous African Americans.
He estimates that slavery-related artifacts and documents constitute
almost 50 percent of his collection.
As a collector-turned-historian and curator, Ballard loans out – for
a fee – portions of his collection to institutions that are developing
His collection has also enabled him to produce and host a series of
Black history public television documentaries known as, “The Ebony
Chronicles.” He earned an Emmy award for the show’s profile of White
photographer Flip Schulke, who achieved prominence for his photography
of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ballard was
to begin hosting a series of African American history features for CBS
Television’s “Saturday Morning” news show starting last month.
“A Very Different Concept”
Black institutions are going to have to find ways to increase the
budgets with which they acquire artifacts and documents, according to
Ballard. He advises Black organizations to couch their corporate
fundraising appeals in messages that remind companies of the vast
wealth that was accumulated in America because of slavery. He believes
that if reminded, today’s corporate America will realize that it has a
responsibility to give something back.
Dr. Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at
Fisk University, was among the angry callers in the Christie’s protest.
His Institute has launched the HOLDINGS (Holding Our Library Documents
Insures Nobility) initiative to retrieve, preserve, and distribute
historical material about the African American experience. (see Black
Issues, May 29, 1997)
The project is intended to allow owners of African American
memorabilia and documents to turn over their collections to Fisk and
retain ownership of the material. Fees generated by the HOLDINGS
exhibitions and Internet-based dissemination of rare documents will be
passed on to owners, according to Dr. Shirley Sims, program coordinator
at the Race Relations Institute.
“This is a very different concept. It’s a way to generate, revenue and still hold onto to our artifacts,” says Sims.
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