Posters, books, porcelain figures go into collections

GATHERING UP BITS OF BLACK HISTORY

October 16, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Non-descript. Plain. Just your ordinary Baltimore rowhouse. At least that's what Jackie Lanier's residence looks like from the outside.

But step inside and . . . whoaaaaa! A piece of black history hangs on every inch of the available wall space. Nearly each stick of furniture is a relic from bygone days: a wooden washing barrel from the 1800s, a 1930s stove, sturdy bedroom furniture from the 1890s.

A neat row of porcelain black "mammy dolls" lines a kitchen counter. An album collection that numbers around 10,000 fills one room of the three-story house. Books -- dating from the 1750s to the present -- are carefully wrapped in acid-free bags. An uncle's Purple Heart medal from the Korean War is framed on one wall. And there are coins paid to slaves that could only be spent at the "master's" store, autographed photos of Josephine Baker and Ella Fitzgerald -- and on and on.

No wonder Ms. Lanier, 44, will be inducted into the Black Collectors Hall of Fame tonight during a black collectibles weekend being held starting today in Washington.

About 5,000 people are expected at the Black Memorabilia/Collectibles Show and Sale this weekend, says Wayne Young, a dealer and collector doing marketing for the event.

Black memorabilia items are those made by or written by or about a black person, or which depict the image of a black person, says Mr. Young, whose Port Harlem dealership is based in Washington.

When the sale first began eight years ago, the majority of the exhibitors were white, he says. This year, 90 percent of the 105 exhibitors are African-American, he says. And the events attract mostly middle class blacks. For instance, last year 91 percent were African-Americans, and 63 percent had at least a four-year college degree, Mr. Young says.

For Ms. Lanier, the interest in collecting started early.

"I started begging my relatives for this stuff when I was very little," says Ms. Lanier, who inherited much of her collection. "I always thought the women in my family lived so glamorously, and I wanted to be just like them!"

These day Ms. Lanier is surrounded by antiques passed down from her relatives. And she believes in using the old appliances and furniture. Her phonograph is a 1949 Zenith model and the radio is from the 1930s.

"Everything in this house works," she says walking over to warm up the old phonograph to prove her point. "Progress," she says, "does not necessarily mean better."

As Ms. Lanier grew older, collecting and preserving black history became her passion. "I couldn't find our history in libraries. I couldn't find it in museums," she says. So she began -- and continues -- to scout out second-hand stores, auctions and flea markets for black collectibles.

Ms. Lanier believes history should also be passed down. She shows her collectibles when lecturing in schools, museums, libraries and private and government offices.

She also gets lots of requests from friends to tour her home. "Kids are always coming in here to play and they don't want to go!" she says.

She and others are working to open the Heritage Museum at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Ms. Lanier says the museum will hold artifacts and collectibles gathered from people of color. "That's where most of my stuff will go."

In the meantime, the money she earns from her radio talk show ("Call of the Ancestors" on WEAA radio, Fridays, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.) and from extensive lecturing gets plunged back into collectibles. "I spend all of my money collecting our history. This is what I do," she says gesturing around her home.

And she is not alone. Ms. Lanier is among a growing number of African-Americans who are intensely interested in black collectibles.

"The market is strong," says Richard Opfer of Richard Opfer Auctioneering in Timonium.

Mr. Opfer, who has been auctioning black memorabilia for more than 10 years, has noticed a change in consumers. "The buying public is becoming much more educated," he says. Some people have an interest in particular items while others want "everything black," he says.

Certain black memorabilia items have risen in popularity and price -- such as cookie jars -- that have blacks with exaggerated features on them. "A really rare one can go for $1,500 to $2,000," he says.

Ms. Lanier, whose collection includes a few stereotypical items such as the "mammy dolls" and a poster of blacks sitting around munching watermelon, says people who are critical of these items can learn from them.

For instance, the poster of blacks eating watermelon also depicts the black woman as the owner of a store. "We were slaves . . . but we were also store owners, artisans, shipbuilders. We owned all kinds of things," Ms. Lanier says.

Milton E. Stanley is another Baltimore collector who sees the value in collecting different types of black memorabilia. "Mostly, I rTC collect stamps," says Mr. Stanley, who was inducted into the Black Collectors Hall of Fame in 1991. But he also has a few posters and pictures that depict stereotypical images of blacks.

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