Man collects rare, valuable African American artifacts
HOSSTON, La. (AP) — It might be difficult to believe such a story in today’s world, but Ruth Pierce, 82, remembers it vividly:
It was around 1950 when she entered the upscale department store Goldring’s on Milam Street to buy an outfit for herself — a gift from a friend. As she entered, the sales person told her she could buy whatever she wanted, but she could not try it on.
You see, Pierce, is black. In the days of legal segregation in the South such reactions were common.
But, even so, it was stunning to Pierce, who was married to a military man, traveled around the country and bought what she wanted.
“I told her that I was not going to buy the dress if I could not try it on. I wasn’t going to buy a dress if I didn’t know whether it fit or not,” said Pierce in her soft-spoken, non-confrontational way. “I felt very hurt.”
She told of her experience during an interview in the antique shop of her godson Ray Stevenson, who collects African American memorabilia from that era.
Pierce and Stevenson’s mom, Joe Ann Anderson, 74, told of their experiences at The Times’ request, as Ray showed memorabilia harking back to that era, as well as other generic and historical items associated with African-Americans.
Former Cotton Belt Railroad employee Ray Stevenson was born in 1961, just a toddler as segregation was ending for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But he knows its history. “Those were hard times for us,” Stevenson said.
He feels it is important to remember them. “To keep them historically alive by preserving bits of history, so they will never live again.”
Stevenson sells a variety of items — from Victorian to shabby chic and primitive — in his shop to customers like Judy Dailey, of Texarkana, Texas, who stopped by to pick up a giant clam shell.
“It is one of three I bought, and I came to pick it up,” said Dailey, a big Stevenson fan, who browsed as he talked.
However, none of the items in Stevenson’s African-American collection are for sale.
He purchases most of the items — which he stores in bank deposit boxes and warehouses — from estates, not, he emphasizes, “estate sales.” But he also has picked up pieces from churches being closed or renovated.
“I am amazed at what people have collected and saved,” said Stevenson, who picked up several trunks from one estate.
And, even though I grew up in the era and rode the “trolleys” almost all my life, it was jarring to see once again a trolley sign which said “colored” on one side and “white” on the other.” The signs illustrated that whites sat in the front of the bus, and blacks had to go beyond that sign to sit in the back.
And a vintage Stonewall service station metal sign which respected whites by offering two restrooms: One for: “White. Ladies. Men.” A second: “Colored. Men and women.” (White females were “ladies,” while black females were “women).”
Although it is stored, Stevenson has a rare door which is stenciled “Colored.”
Such signs were the norm across the South when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.
Among other items he has collected:
Advertisement for housing for African-Americans, who in those days couldn’t buy any house they wanted on any street. It says “African-Americans. Buy your own home in Oak View Addition. $1 down.“Another says, “Colored People Only!” ″You have always wanted a home of your own. We have them.”
Letter. When a Masonic group wanted insurance from Fireside Mutual Life Ins. Co., an official wrote a polite letter of refusal, but recommended the organization contact a “Mr. Roberts” at Good Shepherd Funeral Home, “A ‘colored’ institution.”
Sculpture. A black child fishing.
A mammy doll.
A twine holder with big and bold wide lips. “They used these in stores and were offensive to us,” pointed out Steveson.
Other historical items:
A 1926 panoramic view of the National Baptist of America Convention, which included the Rev. L.K. Williams, president of the convention. “It was taken in the Baptist Hill in Fort Worth, a very historical area.” Ray Stevenson said “In those days, it was all black. Then doctors, lawyers and teachers lived there. It is a very historical area for African-Americans. Now, it is white and mostly upscale. The only thing left of that other time is a Baptist Church.”
A panoramic view of a group of African-American teachers in 1924 in Dallas meeting for the betterment of education.
Picture of stockholders of the Tiger Oil Co. It was one of only a few African-American Oil companies, said Stevenson. “They had their own wells in Oil City, 160 acres near Oil City. Their first well became active in 1938. It was owned by blacks and the company was founded in the late 1930s.” This is very rare,” said Stevenson. “Their offices were in the Calanthean Temple in Shreveport.”
Political sign. “Elect May 12, Eugene Robinson (an African American) County Commissioner, Pct. 3. It was signage which would have been very rare, if possible at all, during segregation.
A professional portrait of a young black man is framed in gold, a piece unusual for its time.
Another more “modern” item is a piece by a folk artist who lives in Shreveport. It is the bust of a man rendered on a portion of a tree trunk.
Because he has been collecting for a while, Stevenson notices that African-American memorabilia is getting rarer and, so, more expensive.
He suggests that if you see a piece, buy it.
“I save because it was who we were and we need to remember who we were so we know who we are,” Stevenson said,
“You see, someone had to endure hardships in those days. People endured hardships to make life better. We don’t want to forget that life was not always what it is now.”