There were statues of black children eating watermelon, "Mammy" cookie jars, and an assortment of Aunt Jemima advertising displays. There was a 50-year-old post card picturing a black man holding a raccoon: "Two of a Kind" read the caption.
Such items, although offensive, make up an important record of America's treatment of blacks and must be preserved, according to exhibitors and visitors at the Black Memorabilia Extravaganza Show and Sale at the Silver Spring Armory during the weekend. Almost everyone who attended the show was black, and much of the memorabilia that they saw demeaned and caricatured blacks.
Not all the items on display were negative. There were movie posters showing black film stars, records and song books by black musicians, deeds signed by Frederick Douglass, old photographs, paintings and dolls, and modern black American and African art.
Some visitors said old quilts and stove-heated irons brought back warm childhood memories, while other objects were sharp reminders of how things used to be for black Americans.
"This is bizarre and typical," said Diane F. Smith, who has an antiques store on H Street NE, holding up a large color advertisement for a frozen dessert called "Picaniny Freeze," apparently made of watermelon. The picture showed a small black child eating watermelon. "Eat Seeds 'n All," the child is saying. "A pal for your palate."
"See," said Ethel L. Williams, picking up an old post card. "They were actually mailed. This is where we were buffoons and 'coons . . . . If you see this, you know what has happened to us in America. It was done deliberately. And these are mild compared to some of them. They poked fun."
Williams was displaying her collection of printed lyrics and song sheets -- with titles like "I Want My Mammy" -- from blackface minstrel shows, most dating from the 1920s. "I remember as a child going to Baltimore to see the minstrels," she said. "We had to go in an alley and up the back stairs to the gallery. That was the only thing they would let us see."
Charles E. Simmons, a Howard University communications professor, said Williams' exhibit was "a positive thing because of the shock effect that it has." He said he had used minstrel show song sheets in his recent exhibition on blacks and the First Amendment. "The negative isn't balanced by any positive characteristics," he noted. "Today, this would be considered group degradation. It's showing blacks as either buffoons or docile. It leaves out the history of struggle."
Naomi Wright of Silver Spring, who had a booth nearby, said she tried to collect items that presented a positive image of blacks, but she said it was hard to find old American items that were not negative. "Most of the positive images come from abroad, from England, Germany and Austria," she said. "America ground out these stereotypes."
"There are items that are positive, and some that blacks do find offensive -- because they are offensive," said show organizer Jeanette Carson, whose company organizes a similar black memorabilia show each year in Los Angeles and publishes the Black Ethnic Collectible magazine. "You can't erase history. We are bringing it to the surface and keeping it before the public eye.
"The Jewish race keeps a focus on the Holocaust so that you will remember this atrocity. Some of these things were an atrocity to the black race. This is something that we will not permit to happen again."