Black Memorabilia Collection Ties America’s Ugly Racial Past to Its Very Similar Present

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Black memorabilia-s sale stirs feelings of both horror and pride - The Washington Post.clipular (1)
A rare tintype of William Tillman will be auctioned at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., this week. Tillman almost single-handedly recaptured a private schooner from Confederate forces during the opening of the Civil War. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

A collection of Black memorabilia on display in Virginia includes some ugly items that remind people of America’s racial past. However, one of the people who organized the collection says the items are necessary and shouldn’t be avoided.

According to Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak, some of the items are so ugly they make the viewer catch his or her breath on first view. For example, one item is a postcard from 1938 of a Black man being publicly whipped. There are even more jarring items such as branding irons used to mark enslaved people as property.

Matthew Quinn, executive vice president of Quinn’s Auction Galleries, said he received resistance from his webmasters when he told them he wanted to post the items online.

“I told them we have to. This is our history,” he said.

Jacob B. Johnson III, an antiques dealer who presented the collection to Quinn’s, said the items were gathered by Howard Wolverton, a New Jersey high school history teacher who used them as classroom aids. Wolverton believed in giving students an unvarnished view of American history.

“He was a white man who believed in teaching American history — all of it,” Johnson said.

However, not all of the items in the collection are negative. Also featured is a photo of William Tillman, a steward who worked on a ship that was captured by Civil War-era pirates. He staged a one-man revolt, killing the pirate captain and turning the ship back to New York. Tillman later received a $6,000 cash reward and retold his story as part of P.T. Barnum’s show.

Dvorak said the fact that Tillman’s story is buried is part of a disturbing trend of overlooking the achievements of Black people.

Some of the items are disturbingly similar to events happening today. For example, there is sheet music from a song called There’ll Never Be A Coon Sit In The Presidential Chair. Dvorak added that if items like this weren’t hidden, it might give Americans a greater sensitivity towards the plight of Black people.

“And how different, really, is the 1938 public whipping in Delaware from the videos we see on a regular basis of black Americans beaten, harassed and killed by police officers today?,” Dvorak writes. “Or the racist song of Oklahoma frat boys — ‘There will never be a N-word in SAE?’ Or the Arizona girls who thought it would be funny to spell the N-word out on their T-shirts? We’ve already forgotten.”

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