2007-05-10 / Arts & Entertainment News

Racism reconsidered: black memorabilia

BY CARL-JOHN X VERAJA Florida Weekly correspondent

PHOTO CARL-JOHN X VERAJA Black Americana: One of many items of memorabilia on display at Noel's consignment shop in downtown Fort Myers. PHOTO CARL-JOHN X VERAJA Black Americana: One of many items of memorabilia on display at Noel's consignment shop in downtown Fort Myers. Overt racism has gone the way of the phonograph or homes without air conditioning - legislated out of existence and made unacceptable by any norm. But it wasn't that long ago when the signs of open hostility towards African- Americans were commonplace.

To remember that era, one African-American woman has been collecting those signs of our dark social past and they're now for sale.

According to Noel Bowles, owner of Noel's consignment shop in downtown Fort Myers, reactions to the black memorabilia items in her display case were milder than she expected.

"Most black people say it doesn't disturb them," Bowles said.

Noel's is on the corner of Main and Hendry streets in downtown Fort Myers, and offers vintage clothing, LPs, books, vases and many varieties of memorabilia.

Black memorabilia, items that openly portray stereotyping of blacks, remind us that these stereotypes are no longer acceptable unless "segregated" to the realm of the antique. It's been only 34 years since the March on Washington in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Many people are still alive for whom these antiques were once commonplace. For those too young to remember this time, they are a doorway into a dark social pattern that now leaves a subtler imprint.

PHOTO CARL-JOHN X VERAJA This sign in Noel's consignment shop in downtown Fort Myers tells customers about the black memorabilia. PHOTO CARL-JOHN X VERAJA This sign in Noel's consignment shop in downtown Fort Myers tells customers about the black memorabilia. The items come from the black memorabilia collection of Doris Stack, 67, a resident of North Fort Myers. They consist of banks, figurines, clocks, pictures, prints, dolls, games and "one of a kinds."

Stack, who is African-American, refused to have her picture taken.

"I'm a private person," she said.

She's lived in North Fort Myers since she became a widow six years ago. When she showed her collection of black memorabilia items, which once numbered around 5,600 pieces, the first things she wanted to talk about were the slave shackles.

"I got them from Africa...when I went to Senegal," Stack said. "Senegal was where they bought the slaves."

The shackles date back into the 18th century but many of the items are a lot younger. One that immediately captured my notice was a game box titled "Snake Eyes." It was a board and card game which displayed the stereotypically giant white eyes of the culturally acceptable exaggerated black features of days gone by. You might not expect it but the game was made in Canada.

Stack made note of this in a letter about her collection.

"It is history neither to enrage blacks nor humiliate whites," she wrote. "…some of my pieces are made of glass, plaster, plastic, cast iron, tin, ceramic, from Germany, Spain, England, China, Africa."

How did Doris Stack get started collecting black memorabilia?

Her lifelong passion started with a favor.

Her neighbor asked her to get a "black man pepper shaker." She remembers that it was one of nine pieces and when she found it for her neighbor they were very pleased.

The collecting added a dimension of interest to another passion: travel. Wherever Stack and her husband would go, they would seek out and often find black memorabilia or other related memorabilia.

"At one time we…stopped collecting," she recounted. "But we missed going out looking. So, we started collecting again. It is in our blood."

Stack, now retired, once worked on automobiles for General Motors in Delaware and also on aircraft and helicopters for Boeing. At the age of 50, she went to college to study interior decorating and began selling black memorabilia from home.

She now has some 2,000 pieces left to sell and explained some of her deeper motives.

"I do hope that one day blacks will buy back some memorabilia just like the Japanese did with their 'Made in Japan' articles," said Stack. "It's a great chance to inform the public. It's a learning process for everyone."

Stack also had an item that was of a different historical significance. A phonograph made by the Victor Talking Machine Company or a Victrola. Upon request, she turned the crank and dropped the needle. While playing "Roll Out the Barrel", she asked if anyone wanted the volume turned down and then tittered.

"You can't turn it down," she said.

"Roll Out the Barrel" was played in a room full of figurines of black jazz musicians with enlarged, bright red lips, seemingly charging sounds and perceptions of the past with an eerie life.

"These figurines remind me of yesterday's world," Stack said. "When I pass them in my home they speak of triumph and overcoming. Even something beautiful- preserves of history we have overthrown."

She asked me to move the Victrola and be careful not to pull out the plug then laughed.

"You can't pull out the plug," she said.

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