A family’s recorded history left for dead
  • Mystery needle case with a family history
  • A black family’s photo album
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    Auction Finds

    Don’t throw away your family’s history

    Dr. Diane Turner held up a small photo album containing the documents of an African American soldier who had served in World War I. She had found and bought it on eBay, and she was astounded.

    The buyer had likely purchased it at an auction – in much the same way that I buy people’s personal papers – or at an estate sale. The family members had probably never even considered the papers important and just wanted to get rid of the stuff. Who’d want it, I’m sure they said to each other.

    A sailor's scrapbook sold at auction.

    In fact, a number of people do. I see African American ephemera snatched up like gold every time it comes up for auction. So much so that I engage in bidding wars just to get my hands on some of it – and most times I lose because the people buying it are hard-core sellers and they know they can make money from it. I’m always buying for keeps, not for sale.

    As black people, especially, I don’t think we consider our personal lives worthy of history. We don’t necessarily consider as significant our high school diplomas or college degrees, or our family reunion picnic photos or anything else that chronicles how we lived.

    And that’s not only a belief of African Americans. I find many many more papers and photos of white Americans on the auction tables. All of us throw away those signs of a life someone else led, just as our descendants will likely toss ours.

    Photos of a couple posing for the camera, sold at auction.

    “Early writers were saying, ‘We were here. We existed. We had lives. We had families,” Turner said.

    The Blockson collection is seeking documents on the lives of African Americans, said Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. She was speaking at a session over the weekend called “Collecting: How to Keep Our History Off the Auction Block.”

    Blockson began collecting as a young boy after one of his teachers told him that black folks had never contributed anything to American history. By the time the collection was handed over to Temple in 1984, he had 20,000 pieces defying the teacher’s notion. According to Turner, that number was now at 500,000.

    And growing – some from her forays onto eBay, donations from people and organizations (on June 17, the National Association of University Women will donate its papers) and from other sources. Blockson’s is a special collection of ephemera, or paper documents: books, photographs, manuscripts, pamphlets, journals, posters and more.

    A scrapbook of papers with Hazel Allen's name carved on the cover. Old newspapers, photo albums, old Ebony magazines and other items were also sold at auction.

    Librarian Aslaku Berhanu talked about the history of black collecting – which flourished in the 19th century – and collectors, including Arthur Schomburg, Daniel Murray and Robert Adger. Adger was among the first black collectors in Philadelphia and co-founder of the American Negro Historical Society in 1897. The society initially excluded women until poet Frances E.W. Harper led a public protest.

    “Collect things related to yourself and your family,” Turner urged. “Elderly people pass on and family members don’t recognize (what they left behind). They throw it out. Blockson will say our history is important. We’re now trying to educate people in Philadelphia and on the Main Line to have their stuff deposited here at the Blockson Collection.”

    The Philadelphia Main Line was known for its old money and huge mansions; one such family was the basis of the 1940 movie “The Philadelphia Story.” Blacks have lived there as far back as 1780, according to a January 2010 story in the Main Line Media News, and developed their own residential communities around the mansions where they worked.

    A letter sent by black Union soldier Joseph O. Cross to his wife in Connecticut in 1864. It was sold at auction.

    Turner told of one woman who lived in the black community of Mount Pleasant on the Main Line who donated boxes of her documents to the collection. Mazie B. Hall – who apparently loved gardening – lived to be 103 years old, and had kept her certificates, awards and other papers. “We went out and took boxes and got everything of hers,” Turner said. “It was important because it tells you something about the individual.”

    Her session reminded me of a conversation I had had a few months ago with a curator of the African American manuscripts auction at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. Wyatt H. Day, the house’s expert on this ephemera, said basically the same thing: that we should be saving those documents and not dumping them.

    They both suggested that families check their attics and basements. “Be vigilant about making sure what you have in your homes and relatives’ homes are intact,” she said. And she cautioned, “please don’t store things in basements and attics” where moisture and the elements will destroy them.

    A copy of Negro World, official newspaper of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. It was sold at auction along with photos and other documents from an African American family.

    Here are some tips she offered:

    Place documents in archival boxes. She named two places where you can buy archival materials: Hollinger and Gaylord.

    Place papers in clear Kevlar covers

    Find companies/organizations that offer workshops on preserving documents

    Consider collecting music, such as sheet music or lyrics of songs

    Write down the names of people on the backs of photos, the date and who took the photo

    Let family members know where you’d like to have your stuff donated.

    Turner told of some other items she had found on eBay. One seller was auctioning letters from an African American soldier and selling them individually. She wrote asking about buying them as a group, but she apparently wasn’t able to get them. “They could end up anywhere,” she said.

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    1. This information is very interesting to me, however, I have an old degree and diploma from the Howard Female College (original with seal) dated 1891 that I am interested in auctioning/selling. Do you have any suggestions?

      • Hi Pat. You could try auction houses in your area, but remember that most folks who go to small estate auctions are dealers and sellers, and aren’t willing to pay much for what the owner considers valuable items. You can find auction houses in your area via auctionzip.com.

        Museums such as the new African American museum being built at the Smithsonian will take a look at pieces, as well as the Blockson Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia. They’ll likely take a look photos if you don’t live close by. I think that both of those collections are seeking donations, though.

        Also, take a look at African American museums and other collections in your area. Email them or give them a call to see if they’re interested. If not, they may have other suggestions. Most auction houses – including Swann Auction Galleries in NY, which auctions African American manuscripts – are always looking for historical and valuable items to sell at auctions. Drop them an email or call.

        Good luck,


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