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Suffolk Man Collects Relics of Racism

Suffolk man collects relics of racism
By PHYLLIS SPEIDELL, The Virginian-Pilot
September 4, 2001

Therbia Parker

Therbia Parker of Suffolk with some of his extensive collection of black memorabilia. Photo by John H. Sheally II / The Virginian-Pilot.

SUFFOLK -- Therbia Parker was offended when he saw the signs for sale in a Petersburg shop. Two read simply but powerfully, "Whites only'' and "Colored Only -- No Whites Allowed.'' A third said "Restrooms -- White -- Colored,'' and had arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Driving home to Suffolk, Parker thought back to a time when such signs were commonplace.

"It occurred to me that my ancestors probably had to hang those signs and keep them dusted,'' Parker said. "The signs are part of history, and, like it or not, you can't change history but you need to remember it.''

A few days later Parker mailed a check to the Petersburg shop and added the signs to his collection of black memorabilia.

Parker, 52, a Suffolk native, is a former computer technology executive who left the stressful New York business world to return to his hometown. He runs his own general contracting business, but says his "real calling,'' is as a historian.

Recently, Parker and his wife, Marva, a school teacher, formed Listen to the Drumbeat Productions -- an enterprise dedicated to teaching African-American cultural history through black memorabilia.

In addition to exhibits and lectures, the Parkers also offer a Black Sunday School, a program that uses Biblical terms and black memorabilia to teach African-American history.

Black memorabilia generally includes any item relating to the African-American experience. It is also, Parker said, the art and history of how black people were perceived as caricatures or objects, sometimes less than human.

Interest in Black Americana has grown nationally in the past five to seven years, said Charles Bethea, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond.

"It is an uncharted area of African-American history that has not received full recognition yet,'' Bethea said. "A lot of people don't realize that the collectibles are out there and you can still find a true gem every once in a while.''

Bethea views collections like Parker's as valuable in preserving African-American history as part of American history.

"It is extremely helpful for anyone who collects pieces of history if you use the collection to educate,'' he said.

Though some of his collectibles could be considered offensive, Parker believes that no one has the right to deny the telling of history as it really was.

His memorabilia, dating back to 1820, is fascinating, disturbing and shocking.

A Jan. 9, 1823, edition of the National Intelligencer. a Washington, D.C. newspaper, advertises household items for sale: wardrobes, washstands, a liquor cabinet, and 24 Negroes. Classified ads solicited information on runaway slaves.

An early 1900s advertising placard of a smiling black face promoted ``Darkie Toothpaste,'' a product Parker said was manufactured by Palmolive.

A panoramic souvenir photo shows hundreds of smiling Klansmen and their wives at a 1931 Ku Klux Klan convention in Roanoke.

A cardboard figure of a black man in a top hat and suit was designed with a slot in its mouth to ``smoke'' small firecrackers. The firecrackers were wrapped in a separate packet printed with cartoon-type black figures.

Parker paid $12 for "Smokin' Joe'' in June and recently verified its value between $75 and $100.

A 1963 Newsweek magazine headline reads, "What the White man thinks of the Negro Revolt.''

Black memorabilia is sought by collectors who appreciate its escalating value. Parker remembers one white woman who followed him around a shop, hoping he would set down an old photo of a black woman surrounded by a family of white children.

"She finally told me that she wanted it for her Mammy collection,'' he said.

Matt Bolding, owner of Treasures of Yesterday in downtown Portsmouth, had heard that celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Whoopie Goldberg collect black Americana. He was startled, however, when James Avery, who played Uncle Phil on the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'' television series, stopped in while visiting the area for a tennis tournament and, in a whisper, asked Bolding if he had any black memorabilia.

"He bought every postcard that I had,'' Bolding said.

Aunt Jemima items, Mammy dolls, old Cream of Wheat advertising, anything relating to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and any black memorabilia marked ``Made in Occupied Japan'' are among the hottest collectibles.

Ken Heckle, assistant manager of the Williamsburg Antique Mall, remembers a Bakelite Mammy figure that sold four years ago for $1,400.

"Black memorabilia is becoming harder to find because collections often have more of a personal meaning and connection and are kept or passed on to family rather than sold,'' he said.

Guides to pricing and history of black memorabilia are so popular that Parker plans to write his own guidebook within the next two years.

"The price has gone up 100 percent,'' he said, often because many collectible pieces of advertising art, books and photos considered offensive have been discarded or destroyed.

Ever increasing numbers of reproduction pieces prove black memorabilia's popularity, according to Heckle. As early as 1992, "Antiques and Collectors Reproduction News,'' a trade publication that issues a monthly report of fakes and frauds, focused on "too many Mammies'' on the market.

Parker values his collection at more than $100,000 but says it's worth even more for its educational value. He says its ability to open a window into the past has more impact than any history book.

The memorabilia, mostly advertising, was geared to "making whites feel superior and blacks feel inferior,'' Parker said. "Blacks, educated and not educated, grew up with this inferior, slave mentality."

"While older folks can remember, there is a whole generation out there, in their 20s and 30s, who never knew these things existed.'' Positive images also figure in Parker's collection. He's collecting every Life magazine cover that focuses on an African American, and has a large collection of old portraits of folks he has no way to identify.

While excavating a trash heap on his family's old farm, Parker uncovered hundreds of artifacts, including plow points, medicine bottles and a straightening comb. The items add a very personal dimension to his collection.

Parker says that as disturbing as his collection may be, people respond positively, grateful to learn about an often buried and too easily forgotten part of history.

"Hey, this is real -- this is no joke,'' he said. "It's history -- whether we like it or not, it's history.''