Collecting the links

Published 7:55 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It all started with a set of salt and pepper shakers.

Holland resident Therbia Parker and his wife, Marva, used to live in New Jersey, and took frequent trips to New England antique shops. One day, he saw a set of salt and pepper shakers in the shape of a voluptuous African-American woman wearing an apron, and he found himself standing in line to purchase them.

“I didn’t know why I was buying them,” Parker now recalls. “I didn’t realize what I had.”

Email newsletter signup

It wasn’t Parker’s first venture into unconventional collectibles. He also has collections of coins, paper currency, decorative miniature shoes and African-American Barbie dolls. None of those collections, however, is as meaningful or as large as the collection of African-American memorabilia that began with those salt and pepper shakers.

He keeps most of the 2,000-piece assortment of papers, photos, coins, food products and commercial knickknacks in storage bins in his home — under the bed, in closets, in corners. Some pieces are displayed on the walls of his home, on shelves and in picture frames.

Parker has made it his business to collect items that represent a shameful part of American history. Slave shackles and identification tags. Handbills for auctions, promising “healthy, strong slaves.” Newspaper classifieds advertising rewards for the return of slaves. A photograph of a Coca-Cola vending machine, with the directive “White Customers Only.”

And then there are the numerous knickknacks and commercial items that generations of Americans used in their homes — doorstops, cookie jars, soap, coin banks, bottle openers, lint brushes and lawn sprinklers. The items all have one thing in common — the blatant racism that comes through in the cartoon-like features, coal-black skin, tattered clothing and stereotypical black personalities, such as the “mammy” on the salt and pepper shakers.

“When you look at this collection, this is like fuel to the fire of racism,” he says.

Therbia Parker happens to be black.

As he describes the items in his collection, his voice betrays the indignation and offense he feels about them.

Though the collection can be hard to view, the items are part of American history, so Parker keeps on collecting.

“You should never destroy your history,” he says. “You destroy yourself.”

After purchasing the original salt and pepper shakers, Parker, whose great-grandfather was a slave, began to do more research into the business of bigotry and to amass more products and historical items. He found trinkets produced by some of America’s most respected companies, still around today, that made caricatures of an entire race.

Among them is “Sprinkling Sambo,” a cutout of a black boy in tattered overalls with a garden hose attachment and a separate hose to spray water. Sprinkling Sambo carries the logo of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company on the bottom.

Numerous food products — hams, oysters, rice, syrup and more — had either logos with derogatory images, or names with pejorative words, or, in some cases, both. These items, too, were produced by companies that are still around: Smithfield Foods, Luzianne Tea, Aunt Jemima and more.

Lest visitors think the items represented only a bigoted South, Parker is quick to note that many of the items were produced in the North and the West — particularly Chicago. One small chain of restaurants called the Coon Chicken Inn — the entrance to which was the mouth of a caricaturized black face — existed only in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, Ore. A coin bank, which operates by a small lever that raises a black man’s coin-holding hand to his mouth and drops the coin inside, is labeled as having been made in “Occupied Japan,” Parker says.

Parker traces the history of blacks in the United States through his collection. He starts with a wide newspaper — dated March 10, 1857 and covered in plastic — that published the Supreme Court’s “Dred Scott decision” word-for-word.

“A black man had no rights whatsoever that a white man had to respect,” says Parker, summing up the opinion of the nation’s high court. “When the Supreme Court holds something, it’s the law of the land.”

From that decision, it’s an easy jump to the shackles, whips and identification tags in Parker’s collection. The shackles have half-moon holes for the wrists or ankles, with a chain between only a few inches long. The tags are struck in metal and strung on thin leather cords. Sometimes they give the slave a name — one says “Moses” — but sometimes only a number. All identify the plantation and town, and each promises a reward if a runaway slave is returned. The whip is crudely woven with leather, and it shows signs of slow deterioration.

The portion of the collection hanging on Parker’s walls consists of a half-dozen portraits of black people behind concave glass — few of them smiling.

“I haven’t the slightest idea who these people are,” Parker says, with a wave of his hand around his living room. He has picked up the portraits at various estate sales and antique shops.

There is one portrait he recognizes — the cover of “Life” magazine, from July 19, 1937, with a black toddler playing in a water sprinkler featured on the cover. He explains the significance — it was the first time a black person was featured on that cover.

From there, the Jim Crow laws took over, prompting the signs and photos of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only.” Parker, 61, is old enough to remember.

“It was not that long ago that I stood in the line that said colored only,” Parker said.

Parker keeps numerous postcards from the era in a photo album. The images are more realistic than the commercial items, but just as derogatory because of the actions depicted. One features a black boy who comes across a chicken ripe for the stealing — but the boy can’t steal the chicken because he already has a pilfered watermelon under each arm.

“This is the worst predicament I’ve ever been in in my life,” the postcard is captioned.

To add insult to injury, Parker says, the U.S. Postal Service actually delivered the postcards — most have addresses and short messages scrawled on the opposite side, with stamps and postmarks in the top corner.

The racist messages made millions for innumerable companies, Parker says.

“It sold products,” Parker says. “It was good, good business and they made money off of it.”

The products sold well mainly because they were everyday things that were needed around the house, Parker says, but the bigotry helped destroy the humanity of a race for a long time.

“They were good for the economy,” Parker says. “They were useful items, but when you get fed this every day, you begin to look at black people as inferior and white people as superior.”

Eventually, bigotry became politically incorrect enough to make it bad for business, and more positive images of blacks began to emerge. George Washington Carver made it onto a U.S. coin. Tiger Woods and Michael Vick scored places on Wheaties boxes. These things, too, are in Parker’s collection — the coin in a protective case, the cereal boxes unopened.

However, the racist images persist on some products, Parker says. Aunt Jemima’s syrup, Uncle Ben’s rice, Cream of Wheat — all still use the old stereotypical images of black people to sell their products, and all have places in Parker’s collection.

“I hope they do change it,” Parker said of the logos. “Advertisements are so powerful. You take that black man off that package, it ain’t nothing but Cream of Wheat.”

Parker’s collection has been displayed at numerous museums and universities, viewed by thousands of blacks and whites alike. People cry when they see the images, he says, tearing up himself. White people often try to apologize to him, but he won’t hear it.

“You don’t owe me an apology,” Parker says to them. “Just look at it.”

He hopes to find a space for the permanent display of his collection, to turn into a museum so it can continue to educate others beyond his death.

“This collection has always been used to teach,” Parker says. “I don’t want to see these things in some basement or attic, or end up in some yard sale or auction house. Museums are there to educate. It may be a museum some day.”