A look at the legacy of black history — the good and bad

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

Imagine a world where signs declared that people couldn’t go into a certain store, bathroom or restaurant because of the color of their skin.

Imagine one where humans were sold as property, wearing tags that bore their names and work specialties, such as &uot;Tobacco&uot; and &uot;Lumber.&uot;

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What would it be like to go to the store and purchasing products like &uot;N—–r Head Shrimp&uot;


&uot;N—–r Tobacco&uot;?

How about opening up your mailbox and finding a postcard with a drawing of a young black child screaming, &uot;Ah’m nobody’s baby now!&uot; or one with an elementary school-age girl sporting a pregnant stomach and declaring, &uot;I is not! It must be something I ate!&uot;

Well, up until less than a century ago, these things happened across America. Beginning Thursday at Norfolk State University (NSU), Therbia and Marva Parker will display these artifacts and the rest of their roughly 3,000-piece collection as part of the college’s Legacies of Slave Imageries in American Culture program.

&uot;We started it together about 30 years ago,&uot; Therbia says in the couple’s Ellwood Road home in the Holland section of Suffolk, looking at a small sample of the collection. &uot;We’d just go out and visit antique stores. The things didn’t cost much.&uot;

They eventually grew into a collection that would include works from across the globe and become one of the largest privately-owned black collections in the country. Artifacts from America, Japan, London and Germany are there for the seeing.

&uot;What was the mentality of America?&uot; Therbia asks, picking up an album of postcards. Two of them have superimposed images of blacks being eaten by alligators with the captions, &uot;Last Supper,&uot; and &uot;Free Lunch.&uot; Another is a photo of three smiling black youths, with the underlying caption reading, &uot;Three Little N—-r Boys.&uot;

&uot;Not only did people produce it, but they used it too!&uot; Therbia exclaims. &uot;People would write on the back, ‘Isn’t this cute?’ Can you imagine if someone mailed some of these today?&uot;

There are dozens of statues of every size, a slave tag from Mount Bello Plantation in Blackstone, slave collars and shackles, and signs reading, &uot;Whites only&uot; and other segregation-type sayings. A few years ago, Therbia was browsing through a store in North Carolina, and saw some blood-stained Ku Klux Klan robes.

&uot;I didn’t want them at first,&uot; he admits. &uot;But I realized that you can’t tell all about black history without the Klan. Black people knew what terrorism was long before 9/11. Some things are painful just to buy, but the more you have, the more you can tell of the story.&uot;

The Parkers started doing so in 1999 at a presentation at the Laurel Hill United Church of Christ. Since then, they’ve been in high demand; groups at Old Dominion University, Chowan College and NSU have listened to them lecture on the subject, as have many churches, schools and museums.

&uot;Over the years, we’ve come to realize just how little Americans, both black and white, know about black history,&uot; Therbia says. &uot;They want to sweep the Jim Crow times under the rug. What we see is a lot about the civil rights movement, but there were a lot of African-Americans spit on during that movement, and a lot of white people doing the spitting. Nobody wants to tell their grandchildren that they were kicked, and no one wants to say that they did the kicking. But it’s our history. It’s American history. If we don’t remember it, we’re destined to repeat it.

&uot;The image that was created was that black people were inferior, good-for-nothing animals,&uot; he said. &uot;They were good to have as property; a master would brag about his strong bucks. But after the Emancipation Proclamation passed, we were a bunch of beasts – just a bunch of n—-rs!&uot;

But for all its derogatory images, the event still manages to show the positive side of black history. There’s several photos and other images of successful and history-making blacks of today and yesterday, such as Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr.

&uot;If you don’t know your history, you won’t value yourself as much,&uot; Therbia says. &uot;I know what my ancestors went through, and I wish to God they didn’t have to, but I honor them by acknowledging them.

&uot;I’ve seen how effective it is when people can see their history,&uot; he says. &uot;It’s been a roller coaster. I never planned for things to go this far, but it’s very rewarding to have someone come up and say, ‘Thank you. This is something I didn’t know, and it’s something that our children need to know.’&uot;

The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, will run weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Jan. 27 to March 4. For more information, contact the NSU history department at 823-2267 or the office of news and media relations at 823-2373.

To contact the Parkers, call 657-9823 or e-mail drumbeat55@hotmail.com.