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 society’s quarterly magazine.

Elvin 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 Bachelor’s 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 music—especially Gospel music, slavery, sports, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement is also popular. Local history and genealogy subjects, spurred on by Alex Haley’s publication of Roots in 1976, are other areas that collectors are now focusing on.

African-American literary accomplishments, military history—including ephemera about the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fame—and 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 country’s 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 school’s 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 America’s overt policies of segregation.

A telegram from Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell to Roy Wingate, asking Wingate to serve as chair of one of Powell’s 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
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.] Photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America