News that Quaker Oats is dropping the image of Aunt Jemima from its syrup and pancake mix packaging has special meaning to me. I collect souvenirs of racism.
I used to call it my collection of racist artifacts, mostly from the post-Reconstruction era of Jim Crow segregation right up to our current historic moment of racial reckoning.
My peculiar hobby, which would turn out to be a lot less peculiar than I initially thought, began one day in the 1970s in an antique collectibles store on Wells Street near downtown Chicago when I was jolted by a very old, yet very familiar sign for sale on one wall.
The sign turned out to be an unframed, painted rectangle of glass that used to be a transom window.
It read, “Colored Waiting Room.”
In smaller letters, it also said “N.C. & St. L.” That’s the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, I later learned. It operated across the South from 1851 to 1957, when it began a series of mergers that led to today’s CSX.
I had to have that sign. I asked the shopkeeper, a jovial middle-aged white man, how much he wanted for it. He told me he wanted $100 but, for me, he’d let me have it for $79.
“Frankly,” he said in a near-whisper, “I think you’d give it proper respect. I hate to think of some white guy buying it to hang over his basement bar just for the giggles.”
Maybe that was salesman’s bull-jive but, even on my reporter’s salary, it worked for me. I liked the idea of rescuing a little piece of America’s ugly racial past, taking back ownership of something that once had been a vehicle of my oppression. Besides, I persuaded myself, as an authentic relic of the Jim Crow era, it would only increase in value — as long as I didn’t break it.
At home, I put it on a visible shelf next to my old cast-iron Aunt Jemima penny bank that my parents gave me when I was 4 or 5, to help me start saving money for college. I had one of those mothers who believed that life begins after you finish medical school. (Sorry, Mom. I tried.)
We loved our Aunt Jemima bank, partly because it reminded my mother of her “Aunt Laura,” which quickly became what we called our bank instead of “Aunt Jemima,” which in our community often was denigrated into a slur — like the overly maligned “Uncle Tom” or Uncle Ben, whose rice box image Mars Inc. is dropping.
I later found I was not alone as a collector. As previously whites-only jobs opened up for people of color and the Black middle class doubled in size by the late 1980s, so did the collectors’ market for Black memorabilia, including racially charged memorabilia.
The sheer magnitude of it attests to how ferociously the forces of post-Civil War backlash wanted to put Black men and women back in our “place,” suppress our political power and erase our culture, even as some of them enjoyed our music.
For example, thanks to one friend, I now have a toothpick dispenser shaped like an alligator with a single toothpick in its mouth, which features the head of a horrified minstrel as a handle.
I also have a coin bank figurine of a red-jacketed bellhop with a coin in its outstretched hand that, with a flip of one of its ears, lifts the coin to his opening mouth.
I’ve had two newsroom friends return from overseas assignments with boxes of Darkie toothpaste, featuring a smiling blackface minstrel, before its owners — who include Colgate-Palmolive — changed its English name to “Darlie” in 1989 and turned the blackface minstrel white.
I also have a used copy of “Little Black Sambo” that I picked up while perusing the backrooms of antique stores in Galveston, Texas. It easily could have been the same copy that my class and I read in our racially mixed grade school in Ohio.
The title of “Little Black Sambo,” by Scottish author Helen Bannerman, is a racial slur for dark-skinned people. Langston Hughes, among others, denounced the book in the 1930s as a “pickaninny” story book, hurtful to Black children. Yet it was still used in the 1950s when I was in the first grade. Changing standards tell us a lot about how deeply our racial culture and etiquette change over time.
Today some of these relics, old and new, can be found in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and even more plentifully in the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Founder and curator David Pilgrim says he started out much as I did, with one piece of stereotypical coon-show art that revolted him. But he stuck with it as a useful vehicle for public education. We Americans should try to learn from it, I agree, not bury it.
We are at a historical moment of worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. In this moment of reckoning, we should appreciate what racial souvenirs tell us about how far we have come, so we have a better idea of where we’re going.