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    

Rare Antique Fabric Mills American Printed Black Americana Cloth Doll Nr20th Century Black Americana Folk Art Cotton Pickers Field Workers Oil PaintingSuperb Mid 19thc Prattware Jar: Blackamoor Scenes From Uncle Toms Cabin C1850sRare Original 1912 Red Indian Mammy Roly Poly Tobacco Tin Nice!!Blackamoor Royal/open Up - Michael Blackamoor (80's Digi Roots 7")mega RareScarce Black Americana Negro Dapper Dan Dressed Tin Toy Lithograph Lapel GermanyRare Vintage Mammy / Aunt Jamima Clothes Sprinkler03 Flakeling Tales Thomas Blackshear You’re In My Heart #93031 Premier ReleaseAntique Black Americana Cast Iron Jocko Lawn Jockey Sculpture StatueAntique Wooden Black Americana Slave Hand Carved Woman Weathervane Vtg Folk ArtOrig J. & E. Stevens Mechanical Cast Iron Cabin Bank C 1880 No ReserveVery Old Antique Lot Of 15 Black Americana Photographs - One TintypeVintage Antique Black Americana N****r Hair Tobacco Tin PailSuperb 19thc Blackamoor Male Head, Match Holder With Striker C1880sAunt Jemima Cookie Jar - Plastic - F&f Die Works - Great ConditionThomas Blackshear-the Heirs 20 Black Americana Front Strike MatchcoversBlack Americana Winchester Western Advertising Poster Or Print On Cardboard WrapOriginal1835 Charleston Slave Tag - 100% Guaranteed Authentic - Nr2 Iron Lawn Jockey Yard Ornament Door Stop/figure````1 Large And 1 Small`````Four Vtg Black Americana Bell-hop Wooden Crumb Brushs/whisk Broom Free ShipVintage Black Americana Chef Cook Mini Creamer Pitcher Japan Milk Restaurant Pat.mar.14,1882-j&e Stevens,conn.-cast Iron Jolly N-mechanical Bank-works-vgcLot 55 Coon Black Negro Sheet Music Black Americana CollectionThomas Blackshear Ebony Visions The Threads That Bind Limited Edition Sculpture Vintage Black Americana Mammy Fortune Teller Cookie Jar HugeRare Set Painted Cast Iron Black Americana Figurine Set African American BanjoOriginal 1880s Trade Card - Racist - Black American - Kimball Tobacco Co #2Mammy Southern Cookbook Antique Civil War Plantation Cookery Recipes Dixie South2002 Flakeling Tales Thomas Blackshear Building Friends #93016 SnowmanVintage Barclay Manoil Rare Black Americana Man Eating Watermelon M142Black Americana Cast Iron Vintage Mechanical Coin BankVintage Rhinestone-studded Blackamoor PinMib Nrfb American Girl Black Americana "addy's Doll" 6" DollBlack Americana Mechanical Cast Iron Coin Money Bank John Harper Jolly NegroUncle Remus Bank 136 Cast Iron Mechanical Black Americana Coin BankFive Vtg Black Americana Aunt Jemima Wooden Crumb Brushs/whisk Broom Free Ship24 Black American Themes Lot All I Want Is My Black Baby Back Sheet MusicRare! Vintage 1940,s Master Marble "clearies" Display Box With 100 MarblesVintage Oil Painting Drawing Cardboard Caricature Blackamoor African AmericanThomas Blackshear's Ebony Visions "talk To The Hand"Aunt Jemima 6-piece Spice Set - F & F Die WorksKaren Germany Daddy's Long Legs Doll 1996 "lovie" 20.5" Hang-tagVintage Antique Black Americana Cast Iron Bottle OpenerVintage Lot Of Early 1900's African American Sheet Music Black American Servants Testify In A Case Of Assault 1744 Norwich ConnecticutThomas Blackshear Ebony Visions African Bride First Issue Sculpture W/coaDaddy's Long Legs Figure Uncle Sam (daddys Long Legs) Nos Nib Coa Formal Photo Tintype African American Man And Woman C1860's Black AmericanaOriginal 1946 Poster Americans Of Negro Lineage By Louise E. JeffersonBlack Americana Mammy Clothes Brush/whisk Broom In Original ContainerVintage Black Americana Mother Native Holding Child Salt & Pepper Shakers1930's 40's Vintage Black Americana Lot. Rare! Vintage 1937 Little Black Sambo Music Flash Cards SetRare! Vintage 1940's Pumpkin Man Fence Halloween DecorationVintage Van Tellingen Black Americana Huggers Salt & Pepper Shakers Boy & DogAntique German Black Americana Boy Eating Corn Cob Figurine Match Holder ?African American Maids W/ Baby + Russian Wolf Hound 1925 Alabama Black AmericanaRare Wwii10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldier Pin Regiment Sign Nazi France 2f 1941 Lot Wood Handle Antique Slave Branding Iron. Circa 18th Century