Originally created 02/21/99

Black Americana

Vincent Hamilton has spent a lifetime preserving a past that many people would rather forget.

There are racist ashtrays and shot glasses, blackface minstrels and mammys -- all remnants of an unpleasant era in which black stereotypes helped fuel and perpetuate racial biases.

"I was offended the first time I saw a lot of this stuff," said Mr. Hamilton, whose collection of black Americana ranges from racist to inspiringly artistic. "It took some getting used to."

His collection, which includes dozens of cookie jars and other items, also teaches lessons -- and provides evidence to help future generations comprehend a past that few people will discuss today.

"This is the unspoken history that no one wants to entertain," Mr. Hamilton said, gesturing toward an array of items at his home. "It helps to understand how images affect opinions. We now have two generations of people who don't know about this stuff."

Mr. Hamilton, 40, also enjoys lecturing about his collection and the influence of black Americana on society and race relations. One upcoming lecture will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lucy C. Laney Museum of Black History.

"It's a way to look at that time period, to see what my people -- black people -- had to put up with," said Mr. Hamilton, who also owns Hamilton Bookstore, a downtown business devoted to black American literature.

All black Americana, he added, isn't necessarily racist. On the other end of the spectrum are hand-crafted porcelain cookie jars and cereal boxes -- depicting black sports heroes -- that become instantly collectible.

"Everything that's black, believe it or not, is now collectible," he said, gesturing at a small library of reference books on the subject.

One of his prizes from the 1950s is a gleaming yellow cookie jar in the likeness of a mammy made by McCoy, a famous American pottery works. The rotund black woman has age lines, a beautiful worn patina and a broad smile.

"The stereotyped mammys were always large," Mr. Hamilton said, laughing. "That's nothing but a myth."

Collecting black Americana has become popular as items become more difficult to find. "A lot of this stuff has been destroyed," he said. "But there are more and more people looking for this stuff."

People like Oprah Winfrey, Billy Dee Williams and Whoopi Goldberg are well-known collectors of black Americana, he said.

"Everybody wants it," he said. "People want to be able to tell their kids, `This is what we had to overcome."'

Values vary widely, as is typical in many fields of collectibles. Cookie jars, Mr. Hamilton's favorite, can range from a few dollars well into the hundreds, depending on age and condition.

Some of the classic black-figure cookie jars are now widely reproduced, with many having strong values, he said. Banks, toys, postcards, photos, utilitarian household items and literature also can be valuable.

Advertising that featured blacks in stereotypical roles has become particularly collectible, he said. There was Aunt Jemima, who sold pancakes and syrup; the black butler on cans of Tom's peanuts; and the cherubic, black "Gold Dust Twins" on many household products. All were advertising icons no longer used today.

Among Mr. Hamilton's favorite black collectibles is a set of 1946 half-dollars featuring the likeness of Booker T. Washington, an early champion of education among blacks. The coin, minted only a few years, includes the slogan "from slave cabin to hall of fame."

Most of the more offensive items, especially racist tourism trinkets sold throughout the South, began to disappear after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said. But they still turn up from time to time.

"They remind you of a lot of things that have been forgotten," he said. "It's my documentation. You can see it. You can hold it up and show it."

Robert Pavey can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.

About this series

The Heart of the Collector is a periodic series about collectors and collections. If you would like to suggest a person or topic to be considered for a profile, call Robert Pavey at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or e-mail to rpavey@augustachronicle.com.


Vincent Hamilton will present a lecture, Black Memorabilia in America: the Social, Economic and Political Impact, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History, 1116 Phillips St. The program is open to the public. Admission is $5. Call the museum at 724-3576 for more information.


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