She’s talking about Ralph C. Gomes, who for 49 years was a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Howard University. Gomes died in March at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of academic research, graduate students he’d mentored — and an impressive collection of art and artifacts that explore the Black experience.
Nearly 300 items from that collection are among the lots to be sold Friday at Sloans & Kenyon. They are on public display in the auction house now.
The items run the gamut from the beautiful to the upsetting. Gomes acquired art of sublime beauty. He also acquired artifacts that showed offensive depictions of African Americans created by White companies.
“He started buying Black memorabilia just to mark where Black people were at the time and how they expressed themselves,” said his ex-wife, Stella Pla, who remained friends with Gomes after their divorce.
Pla said that the couple’s now-deceased daughter, Sasha, was interested in dolls when she was young.
“He bought a lot of dolls for her, made by Black people for Black children,” Pla said. “Then he expanded that to buy things that related to the struggle.”
Gomes collected items related to slavery, to antebellum life, to Jim Crow, to the Harlem Renaissance, to sport, to the civil rights movement. He collected Black sculpture, Black paintings, Black advertising art.
“He collected the Black memorabilia, in particular, because it spoke of the passage of people and how they sought to record their life stories,” Pla said.
Gomes’s life story was as evocative as any work of art. He was born in Guyana, a former British colony on the northeast coast of South America. In 1960, Gomes represented Guyana in the 800-meter race at the Summer Olympics in Rome.
Gomes came to Howard in 1971, after earning a PhD at Penn State. In 1974, he wrote the proposal that helped establish what is still the only PhD program in sociology at a historically black university. With his late wife, Linda Faye Williams, he co-wrote the book “From Exclusion to Inclusion: The Long Struggle for African American Political Power.”
In an obituary for the American Sociological Association, Gomes’s Howard colleague Walda Katz-Fishman wrote: “He was a revolutionary who intertwined theory and practice in all his life’s work — personal, professional and political.”
Those elements intersected at his house in Rockville, Md., which was full of the fruits of his auction-going. Gomes’s son Alexander sometimes accompanied him on his collecting trips. When two sales were being held simultaneously, Gomes would dispatch Alexander to bid at one in his stead.
Some of the items in the collection — such as lawn jockeys and Southern mammies — strike modern eyes as offensive. Gomes didn’t shy away from that, an issue Alexander sometimes raised with his father.
“I’d question him all the time,” Alexander Gomes said. “He said he wanted to paint a picture of the mind-set of the day and age, and of why people put items out like that.”
Ralph Gomes explained that while objectionable depictions are a slap in the face today, there was a time when they were seen as normal.
“He wanted to keep a piece of that heritage, to show that we’re not so far gone from yesterday,” Alexander Gomes said. “We still have to know where we came from to know where we’re going.”
I don’t want to leave the impression that all the items are offensive. Many are very cool, including a souvenir mantel clock adorned with a sculpture of boxer Joe Louis. Some are imbued with history, such as an 18th-century copper antislavery token designed by Josiah Wedgwood. It features a kneeling figure surrounded by the lettering: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother.”
And there’s a Shepard Fairey poster from after the 2008 presidential election. Above an illustration of President Barack Obama are the words “Yes We Did.”
Urban renewal is something that affects minority communities more than others, both the communities that are being “renewed” out of existence and the new communities that are created. That’s the subject of an upcoming Zoom lecture from the DC History Center, part of the Historical Society of Washington.
Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., journalist/activist Sam Smith and NBC4 reporter Derrick Ward will discuss the history of urban renewal in the District and how federal experiments have reshaped the city.
To register for the event, visit bit.ly/32y5SYQ.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.