In Search of African America:  One Collector's Experience January 17-March 21, 2004

The experience of the James Hicks collection is a journey of the heart and mind into the history of the African American race. The collection tells the story of the indoctrination of racism into American culture. Expect the exhibit to be uncomfortable because of what it reveals and the emotions it evokes. This is the importance of the collection. The rare historical pieces document the first hand experience of the Negro condition while the images on the memorabilia introduced into White society demonstrate the stereotypes used to perpetuate racism.

The collection records the material culture that grew out of the history of racial perceptions and misperceptions in America . These images and documentation are a heritage that began in slavery and continued in the Jim Crow period. The collection may be nostalgic for some, uncomfortable for many. It aims to be understood for its historical and cultural context. In the toys and games, the advertising, packaging and products for the home (referred to as Black memorabilia in the collecting world), one glimpses the changing racial attitudes of society.

The Slave images created in the midst of criticism against slavery presented an image to the world of "docile, tractable and happy" slaves who were unfit for freedom (John Hope Franklin, From Freedom to Slavery , pg. 205.). The defenders of slavery maintained this façade with what Stanley Elkins labeled the "Sambo" stereotype (Robert V. Haynes, Blacks in White America Before 1865 , p. 201ff). Benjamin Quarles in his book, The Negro in the Making of America (1964) describes the stereotype:
. the slave always play a role, acting in the way that he believed to be his best interests. Hence he tended to fawn servility, to wear the mask of humility. He adapted a child posture, giving the impression of being attached to the master and utterly dependent upon him. He.pretends to be a bit stupid."

The Sambo stereotype and its variations became the predominate images of the Negro throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century (Douglas Congdon-Martin, Images in Black: 150 Years of Black Collectibles . 1990). The racial stereotypes can trace their origins to the portrayal of black people in minstrelsy. The minstrel show played a critical role in creating an image of blackness in the white consciousness.
".minstrelsy relegated black people to sharply defined dehumanized roles. Skin the color of coal, ruby lips stretched around an outsized exaggeration of a toothy grin, and the tattered clothing and mawkish behavior.created a convenient label-blacks as buffoons." (Guy C. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940 , p. viii).

Minstrels used exaggeration to create caricatures that would make audiences laugh, and in the process created stereotypes that would last for decades. They included bulging eyes, flat, wide noses, gaping mouths and big feet. Minstrels portrayed blacks as spending time fishing or sleeping, eating possum or coon and singing and dancing all night. The Hicks collection has items from what is believed to be the last minstrel show in Iowa in 1951.

Two dominant character types emerged from minstrelsy. There was the courting "dandies" who never measured up to white counterparts in their flashy clothes, and therefore appeared the buffoon. The second character of the free northern black was that of the ignorant comedy type, who spoke but made no sense and couldn't comprehend simple ideas or inventions.

Minstrelsy had a tremendous impact on both black and white society for it was the primary form of entertainment for at least 60 years. It was seen by millions, many of who believed that what they were seeing was a factual portrayal of the lives of African Americans. Children's toys were often taken from minstrelsy as well as advertising and packaging. The trinkets and figurines that made it into American kitchens were often of Mammy or Old Uncle Tom. For many, these comic images dating back 150 years were the only exposure and understanding of black people.

Consider " Little Black Sambo ", a children's book widely circulated in the United States and often the only early image of a black person experienced by whites. The book was originally written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman in India in 1898. When the story came to America , the stereotypic black image was used. Little Black Sambo, with its funny little story of Sambo eating 169 pancakes, was effective in perpetuating the racial stereotype.

Much of the advertising was produced to sell items to white consumers and was often made available where men were relaxing-taverns, cigar stores and barbershops. Often the first and only contact with black American culture was through these images. This misinformation or misperception of the character and role of blacks was handed down from generation to generation. These characterizations are represented in the Hicks collection by the pieces referred to as memorabilia. The collection contains numerous examples of toys, children's books and advertisement.

In contrast to the story told in memorabilia, the Hicks collection includes many rare items of historical significance, which record the events and condition of the Negro throughout these periods. The Hicks collection has first edition copies of Frederick Douglas's 1854 narratives, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin ( 1852) and novels of James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. It includes a book of testimony investigating the Ku Klux Klan in 1874 that records the testimony of a man named James Hicks who was beaten and run out of his rural county in Mississippi . Research suggests that this man may be the collector's grandfather's father's brother.

Following the Civil War, the years of reconstruction provided a brief period of social equality, but resistance in the white communities used the dandy and buffoon stereotypes to characterize the black leaders. A new stereotype also emerged: that of the black man who aggressively sought sexual relations with white women. The spread of this new stereotype can be attributed to the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups formed to resist the Reconstruction. The "threat to white womanhood" was central to the abandonment of Reconstruction in 1877 when federal troops were withdrawn from the South. Jim Crow laws were adopted insuring the separation of the races. (Douglas Congdon-Martin, Images in Black: 150 Years of Black Collectibles . 1990).

Segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from 1830's who was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. By 1877, Southern Democrats had gained control of local and state governments. They began to pass laws that specified certain places "For Whites Only" and others for "Colored." In 1896 in a case Plessy v. Ferguson , the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional. The Plessy ruling provided constitutional protection for segregation for the next 50 years.

The Civil Rights movement was the challenge to segregation through a variety of activities including protest marches, boycotts and refusal to abide by segregation laws. Many believe the movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although full equality has not been reached, the civil rights movement did put reforms in place. Legal segregation as a system of racial control was dismantled and blacks were no longer subject to the degradation of Jim Crow laws.

The Experience of Collecting

The exhibit is enhanced by James Hicks' story of his adventures and passion for collecting. Hicks became a knowledgeable collector of African American history and "Black memorabilia" quite by accident. In 1990 an impromptu trip to an antique shop ignited his passion to collect anything documenting or depicting Black Americana. Hicks, a locksmith at the University of Iowa went on the road searching shops, auctions and flea markets throughout the Midwest . He studied the market of collectibles and Black history. Today he has amassed a superb array of over 1100 memorabilia items depicting Negro stereotyping and rare historical items documenting African American's political, cultural and historical contributions.

There is a controversy in the collecting world with regard to Black memorabilia. One camp feels the negative images should be removed from circulation. The other camp, to which Hicks belongs, feels that the artifacts, books, toys, and images tell the story of Black history, both good and bad. The caricatures exist in sharp contrast to the real life stories recorded in the historical pieces. Taken in total, the Hicks collection offer a unique glimpse into the adversities faced by African Americans since the time of slavery. The exhibit raises our awareness of the determination, fortitude and heart of African Americans who have come from slavery to their roles of leadership and contribution to American industry and invention today. The exhibit is a celebration of triumph of the spirit, and only in this sharing and experiencing of history can it be recognized and appreciated.

January 4, 2004

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This exhibit is divided into 10 sections

1. Introduction
--The James Hicks Collection (you are here)

2. The Burden of Slavery, 1619-1861

 3. The Civil War, 1861-1865
4. The Price of Freedom: Reconstruction, 1865-1877

5. Say Hello To Jim Crow, 1878-1897

6. Up From Slavery:
The Self Help Period
7. The Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1946
8. The Civil Rights Era, 1947-1968
9. The Black Power Movement, 1968-1980
10. The Turn of the Century, 1981-2004
Return to the Exhibits Main Page