Collecting African-American Ephemera
In March, 2003, Elvin Montgomery gave a talk on
collecting African-American ephemera at Ephemera 23, the annual
conferenceand fair sponsored by the Ephemera Society. Doing double
duty, he also wrote an article on the same topic for the recently
published spring issue of Ephemera News, the societys
is a collector, dealer, and consultant on African-American materials.
As his biographical sketch in Ephemera News notes, "Although
based in New York City, he credits his native New Orleans as the
source of his deep and rich African-American roots." Professionally,
Elvin is an organizational psychologist and management consultant
with a Bachelors degree from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia.
For several years he has organized a Black History Month antiques
and collectibles show and sale in New York City.
Elvin points to a difference between African-American
historical ephemera and so-called Black memorabilia. Historical
ephemera consists of items about actual experiences, activities,
and cultural products, while Black memorabilia reflects what others
perceived or portrayed about African-Americans. Historical ephemera
represents an insiders viewpoint of African Americans and
their world. Black memorabilia, on the other hand, represents
the outside viewpoints of others, usually not admirers. Also,
Black memorabilia is derogatory or stereotypical in its characterizations
of African-Americans; it was created to inspire laughter at their
expense. Ironically, the same kind of item can be either historical
ephemera or Black memorabilia. For example, sheet music pertaining
to Black participation in World War I is considered historical,
but other sheet music with songs written about Blacks is frequently
derogatory and should be regarded as Black memorabilia.
There are several trends in collecting. Ephemera
chronicling celebrities and firsts has been popular for some time,
and social history topics are now becoming attractive. Ephemera
documenting musicespecially Gospel music, slavery, sports,
the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement is also
popular. Local history and genealogy subjects, spurred on by Alex
Haleys publication of Roots in 1976, are other areas
that collectors are now focusing on.
African-American literary accomplishments, military
historyincluding ephemera about the Tuskegee Airmen of World
War II fameand religion, as well as Black film, colleges,
lodges, and organizations are growing in popularity too. Although
ephemera on these topics is still available, it is disappearing
quickly. But, as new specialties crop up, new collectors also
crop up and move into expanding markets.
Who collects African-American ephemera? African-Americans,
yes, but there are also others who have become engaged. Designers
are in the marketplace to build collections of graphics to inspire
their work. Investors realize the growing monetary value of African-American
ephemera and are interested in compiling collections for subsequent
resale. Museums, libraries, and historical societies that did
not concentrate on African-American history before have now joined
the movement for collecting it. And, finally, people with a sense
of history who simply want to understand an important aspect of
our countrys past collect African-American ephemera.
The efforts made to establish a national African-American
museum have energized an appreciation of Black ephemera. As Elvin
emphasized: "various forms of ephemera will have to be an
important part of this museum's armamentarium of research, teaching,
and display materials. Ephemera will become an increasingly important
format for explaining the African-American experience
Elvin illustrated his presentation and article with illustrations
from his own collection. Spotlighting the history of Howard University,
he showed a photograph by Addison Scurlock of members of the schools
Sphinx Club from 1923. Another photograph was of a 1930s Black
dinner party; Elvin commented that it depicted "an elegance
that has been forgotten by many young people today." A mid-1950s
travel guide that listed hotels, resorts, and restaurants that
would accommodate Blacks brought to mind Americas overt
policies of segregation.
A telegram from Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell to Roy
Wingate, asking Wingate to serve as chair of one of Powells
reelection campaigns, and a check written by educator and diplomat
Ralph Bunche highlighted three famous African-Americans. Music
ephemera included sheet music for "In That Celestial City"
and a flyer for baritone classical singer Todd Duncan from the
mid twentieth century. Religious ephemera included a photo portrait
of Rev. Smith, who promised "a square deal for Jesus"
and an AME Zion program from Cleveland dating from 1935.
Elvin concluded by saying that "the vast scope and variety
of African-American ephemera affords many opportunities for collecting
at all levels." Members of the Ephemera Society are fortunate
to have such an enthusiastic fellow-collector on the rolls!
E. Richard McKinstry