Collecting our history

Educator's pursuit of African American memorabilia

Stevie Wonder’s original sheet music, a tube of Darkie Tooth Paste, 1920s cartoons and a can of Muhammad Ali Shoe Polish are just some of the items, gathered from around the world, in Stacey Ayers’ vast collection of African American memorabilia.

Ayers, associate dean of the Institute for Continuing Education at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, has been collecting the objects and images that immortalize African American history for 15 years. “I first became interested in antique auctions and came upon some vintage African American games and dolls, which many would actually deem offensive due to their stereotypical nature,” he states. “I thought if I bought the items, I could at least take them off the market. I later realized the inherent historical and educational value of the objects despite their ambiguous meanings.”

Ayers admits that his passion has its drawbacks. “Black memorabilia used to come a dime a dozen. Now there are so many collectors, many items have become hot commodities,” he notes. For example, items such as lawn statues, once inexpensive and very common throughout the South, are now considered rare and can cost up to $500 each. Also, celebrity-related pieces can cost thousands of dollars. However, he says, there are still worthwhile, less expensive collectibles often costing under $50, such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver half dollars from the 1940s-50s.

Where does this husband and father find his treasures? Ayers spends an average of 30 hours per month on his hobby, surfing the Internet and visiting antique shows around the nation, but he tends to buy primarily from private collectors. “When I first started collecting, I would search everywhere-antique shops and fairs, yard sales, postcard shows and private dealers.” Ayers has found, however, that private collectors are better resources for rare items such as lawn statues or walking sticks with African American insignia, as opposed to more commonly found pieces like salt and pepper shakers. “I collect things for their originality and uniqueness and there is a network of dealers across the country who know what I like and will contact me when any of those items come in stock,” he contends.

If you’re thinking of starting your own collection, Ayers recommends searching your local antique shops and fairs. “Many dealers carry African American memorabilia and may or may not display them depending on how sensitively the items could be perceived,” he states. So if you don’t see what you’re looking for, ask what’s for sale. Says Ayers, “You’ll be surprised at what you might find.”

Getting started
Read books and newspapers such as Images in Black: 150 Years of Black Collectibles by Douglas Congdon-Martin (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., $24.95) and Antiques and the Arts Weekly, a newspaper with comprehensive listings of auctions, shows and exhibits around the country.

On the Web, type the words “black memorabilia” into any search engine for a list of dealers. The Black Memorabilia Club (www.blacksatincollectibles.com or 202-554-5177) is an online forum where black collectible items are discussed. You can also surf over to

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