Black memorabilia, sometimes called Black Americana, describes objects and ephemera relating to African American and Afro-European history. Most of this material was produced from the 18th through the 20th centuries. Frequently, these household items reflect stereotypical ideas about black people through offensive and dehumanizing caricatures. However, black memorabilia also encompasses objects with positive connotations, commemorating civil rights advances or achievements by scholars, artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, and other members of the black community.

Some of the earliest items associated with black memorabilia were actually produced in Europe. These ornamental portrayals of Africans, referred to as blackamoors or blackamores, appeared on enameled jewelry, pottery, sculptures, and other decorative arts beginning as early as the 13th century, when black servants came to represent the pinnacle of wealth.

Displaying a blend of stereotypical Oriental, Arabian, and African attributes, blackamoor objects typically feature a head or bust with dark skin, a colorful turban, and elaborate gold jewelry. The trend for these exoticized pieces peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as European countries increasingly colonized and traded with areas in Northern Africa.

Across the Atlantic, as slavery became entrenched in the American way of life, representations of African Americans helped to reinforce this inhumane system. Just as white superiority was cultivated by clergymen, politicians, and scientists, this belief system was also spread through popular culture, via theatrical performances, song lyrics, advertising imagery, and the design of household objects.

Much of this imagery perpetuated the association between African Americans and household servitude, like the smiling cook used in Cream of Wheat ads. Others aimed to get a laugh with depictions of simple-minded oafs obsessing over watermelon or being attacked by alligators. Caricatures of black people appeared on every imaginable product, although skin color was used especially often as an advertising punchline for goods like ink, tooth paste, shoe polish, washing powder, and house paint.

While this packaging documented existing opinions about African Americans, it also influenced cultural norms moving forward: Even as progressive groups questioned the ethics of racial prejudices, popular depictions of black Americans as subhuman often undermined their efforts.

During the 19th century, several offensive stereotypes became commonplace, including male savages or brutes, mammies, sexualized Jezebels, pickaninny children, and ignorant “coon...

Eventually, familiar characters like Golliwog, Aunt Jemima, and Little Black Sambo were created as amalgamations of various racial stereotypes to market all manner of toys and household products. Dressed in a bright blue jacket with a red bow tie and trousers, Golliwog (or Golliwogg) was originally a character in Florence Kate Upton’s book “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls,” published in 1895. The Golliwog doll in Upton’s story was modeled after minstrel performers, who were known for their ugly blackface representations of African Americans. After Upton’s book series became a success, Golliwogs became especially popular as rag dolls, though the character was also featured on products like postcards, clocks, pottery, and wallpaper.

At the time, the dominant representation of black children was as “pickaninny” kids, who were dirty, unkempt, and barely clothed—almost animal in their wildness. These portrayals were seared into the collective imagination with the 1922 arrival of “Our Gang,” the film series that would eventually become “The Little Rascals.” Characters like the infamous Buckwheat epitomized the bumbling, poorly dressed pickaninny.

Perhaps the most popular version of the pickaninny caricature was introduced with Helen Bannerman’s 1899 book, “Little Black Sambo.” This children’s story follows a young black boy as he outwits a series of tigers, and is finally rewarded with tiger-striped pancakes. Though the tale itself was not inherently racist, the name Sambo was a common epithet for a lazy servant, and the book’s illustrations reinforced a variety of negative stereotypes about black people. Additionally, the immediate popularity of “Little Black Sambo” resulted in a proliferation of knock-off versions, many of them incorporating more offensive storylines and imagery.

Though Aunt Jemima is most famously associated with the Quaker Oats pancake mix, her character was originally based on a vaudeville minstrel song from 1875 called “Old Aunt Jemima.” In her apron and polka-dotted kerchief, Aunt Jemima became the familiar face of the mammy stereotype, a motherly and overweight black woman who is visibly happy in her subservient position. The mammy caricature is one of the most enduring black stereotypes, and was often used as proof that servitude was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Mammy caricatures appeared on a wide variety of household objects, especially kitchen-related items like cookie jars, dish towels, pitchers, string holders, salt and pepper shakers, tea tins, and detergent boxes.

In the face of such negative portrayals, African Americans pushed for change, creating their own representations and making strides towards greater equality in the public sphere. Some of the most coveted items of Black Americana are connected to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, like comic books that captured the story of Dr. Martin Luther King or newspaper clippings covering Rosa Parks’s trial. Political icons ranging from Frederick Douglas to Malcolm X have been commemorated with collectible objects like silver spoons, decorative plates, and ceramic figurines.

Memorabilia connected with all types of black celebrities is highly valued, from tickets for Josephine Baker performances to signed photographs of Muhammad Ali, original Duke Ellington records, and Jackie Robinson baseball cards. Other names are less recognizable to modern ears, but represent equally important milestones for black Americans, such as Madam C. J. Walker, whose popular hair tonic made her one of America’s first female millionaires.

Products targeted toward African American consumers make up another important segment of Black Americana, like Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” or early issues of groundbreaking publications like “Ebony” and “Jet.” Original Patty-Jo dolls also fall into this category: Launched by the Terri Lee doll company in 1947, Patty-Jo was created explicitly for black children by African American illustrator Jackie Ormes.

Even some offensive objects of Black Americana celebrate the successes of African Americans. For example, black jockey figurines, common to white suburban communities during the mid-20th century, aren’t only a reminder of black servitude. Rumor has it that George Washington commissioned the first statue of a black jockey holding a lantern after his black groomsman, Tom Graves, who froze to death while lighting the way for revolutionary troops crossing the Delaware River. In fact, black jockeys were some of America’s first sports stars, as slaves represented their masters’ teams in southern races beginning as early as mid-1600s. A black jockey named Oliver Lewis won the first-ever Kentucky Derby in 1875, and African American athletes dominated the sport well into the 20th century.

Today, historic artifacts connected to slavery are among the most desirable pieces of Black Americana, which include trade documents, shackles, and identification tags, as well as abolitionist circulars and books. Other signs of institutionalized racism, like signs from the Jim Crow era designating separate spaces for “colored” and “white,” are also sought by collectors.

In many ways, modern attempts to achieve a more equitable society have served to whitewash over these painful realities. Few realize that Agatha Christie’s best-selling mystery novel of 1939, “And Then There Were None,” was originally titled “Ten Little Niggers,” after a popular nursery rhyme that recounts the deaths of ten black children (the poem is called “Ten Little Indians” in the American text).

While many fear the preservation of Black Americana serves to prolong racist prejudices, others collect these objects to ensure that America’s troubled past isn’t forgotten by future generations. In the words of David Pilgrim, founder of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, “Use items of intolerance to teach tolerance.”

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

Founded by David Pilgrim, a former sociology professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, the Jim … [read review or visit site]

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Ad Access

Ad Access

Duke University's library has pulled together an impressive collection of over 7,000 ads printed in U.S. and Canadi… [read review or visit site]

Plan 59

Plan 59

From the Nostlagia Factory in Virginia comes this celebration of 'mid-century automotive advertising illustrations'… [read review or visit site]

American Package Museum

American Package Museum

Ian House's gallery of early 20th Century American package designs. Browse the exhibits in slide show mode or view … [read review or visit site]

Found in Moms Basement

Found in Moms Basement

Paula Zargaj-Reynolds’ blog, an extensive collection of 20th century vintage advertising, is a visual feast. Scro… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Aunt Jemima Trade Card Pancake Flour Puzzle Game Vintage Black AmericanaCa1880 Boxed Set Of Chromolithograph Transformation Toy Blocks Black AmericanaLinemar 50's Rare Japan "nutty Nibbs" Marx-kosuge Bat Op Black Americana-12"Rare 1911 Embossed Mechanical Halloween Black Americana Postcard - ClapsaddleCast Iron 1939 Jolly Nig*er Black Americana Mechanical Coin Bank Antique VintageRare Early Coro Blackamoor Enamel Fruit Basket Fur Clip Brooch Pin Book Piece13 Pcs Mid Century Black Americana Aunt Jemima F&f Mold & Die Works Collection Archive 15 Letters Young Woman Mississippi Freedom Summer Negro Civil RightsBlack Americana Coin Bank - 1 Of 5 - Vintage Red Jolly Mechanical Coin Cast IronVintage Black Americana Ronson Lighter1963 Danville Virginia Sncc Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Danny LyonVintage Black Americana String HolderThomas Blackshear Ebony Visions " Dark Elegance" Exotic Ltd. Edition SculptureOriginal Letter From Martin Luther King Birmingham City Jail 1963 Negro Civil RiRare Retired Daddy's Long Leg Santa Doll 2006 W/toybag Collectible Karen GermanyAntique Cold Painted Black Americana Figural Black Man Cigarette & Match Holder "bad Accident" Mechanical Bank Cast Iron Black Americana C1890's6 Lot Black Americana Lead Cast Iron Figure Britains Bench Toy Maid Lincoln LogsCoon Hunt Black Memorabilia 1930's Milton Bradley Game Rare In Box DaisyBlack Americana Coin Bank 3 Of 5 Vintage Jolly Mechanical Coin Cast Iron ManThomas Blackshear Ebony Visions The Tender Touch 10.5" Tall Mint RomanceC1904 Vintage Knox's Gelatine Celluloid Advertising Pinback Black AmericanaEarly 1931 All Fair Black Americana Sambo Board Game Toy Bean Em In Box!Original 1970 Black Panther Party Newspaper With Huey Newton On Cover #12001 Poems Langston Hughes Easton Press Jazz Poetry Harlem Black Americana U.s. Original Marx Spin And Span Wind Up Toy Black AmericanaJazzbo Jim "the Dancer On The Roof" Ferdinand Strauss -1921 Black AmericanaVintage Tintype W Case Black Americana Negro Girl Photo Jackson Tn1964 Mississippi Summer Project Sncc Brochure Negro Votes Danny Lyon Civil Right1899 Ma Mobile Babe Rag-time Cake Walk Hand Tinted Lithograph Black AmericanaF&f Aunt Jemima Mammy Black Americana Plastic Cookie JarBlinking / Rocking Eye Clock Topsey Black Americana Cast Iron 1860 Radical Anti-slavery Newspaper "the Liberator" William Lloyd GarrisonBlack Americana Coin Bank - 2 Of 5 -vintage Dinah Mechanical Coin Cast Iron LadyBlack Americana The Sea-(in)-side Smile Original Old 1910s PostcardAntique Oil Canvas Painting Blackamoor African American Folk Art Rural Ebony1950s Black Americana Hand Painted Bisque Gentleman Nodder Figure Ardalt JapanOriginal 1970 Black Panther Party Newspaper Black Community News Service #2Lot Of 3 Antique Black Americana Victorian Trade CardsPostcard Album Lot Of 65+ 1905 -1907 - Black Americana, Sport, College, HolidayAntique German Parian Bisque Black Man On Potty 1900 Sign Ethnic Art Feather Hat2 Vintage Little Black Sambo Books 1940's 1948 Little Golden & Tell-a-tale The Student Voice Sncc 1963 Atlanta March On Washington Civil Rights John LewisMajor Taylor / Iver Johnson Cycles / 1899 / Rare African American Star CyclistVintage Black Americana Naive Folk Art "mammy" Wood Carving Sculpture Signed YqzVintage Black Americana String HolderSass N Class By Annie Lee. Bud & Lucille. Limited Edition FigurineVtg Mid Century 1960s Fred Jones Black Americana Watercolor Painting ApostlesVintage Aunt Jemima Cast Iron Bank/ Doorstop Black Americana Blue KerchiefLot Of 2 Black Americana Coin Banks - Listing 4 Of 5 - Vintage Coin Cast Iron 1940-50s Fugural Black Woman, Wall-hanging, String HolderVintage Dixie Boy Firecracker Label Black Americana Loi Sze Pau ChukCast Iron Segregation Sign Cotton Belt White Only 1928 Dixie Sign Co.Scarce Happy Families Card Game Toy Black Americana With Original BoxVintage Fable Felts Little Black Sambo Skirt Costume **rare** Black AmericanaSuperb 19thc Ceramic/porcelain Blackamoor Boy Jug Vintage Antique Black Americana Carved Wood DollLot Of 10 Sheet Music Pieces Black Americana Rock Doo Wop 1950's & 60's G+-m1963 The Crisis Naacp Magazine October March On Washington Martin Luther KingReids Flower Seeds Advertising Trade Card Black Americana Reid's Rochester, Ny