A love for black children’s books
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    Auction Finds

    Extolling the work of early black craftspeople

    The thin booklet was laying on the auction table haphazardly, as if someone had absentmindedly tossed it there. Because it was so small and flat, I’m sure it was considered to be of little worth.

    That’s the exact opposite of how I view books and printed items. I always assume that something valuable is contained within their pages. So, I always flip through them, cursorily looking for that little nugget hidden inside.

    Illustration and text about African American dressmakers during the colonial period.

    I found it on a back page inside this little book with the cinnamon-brown cover. There was a photo of the artist who had drawn the illustrations; I instantly recognized his name but not his face. It was a young Jerry Pinkney, one of my favorite illustrators of children’s books.

    I knew I had to have this early work of his. I was sure that no one else would want it because most were likely unfamiliar with him. I came across another copy of the booklet among some other African American-related books, and two people bidded against me on both of them after the auctioneer mentioned their content.

    The booklet was called “Craftsmanship. A Tradition in Black America,” produced in 1976 by the RCA Corp. during the country’s bicentennial. It grew out of a series of RCA ads aimed at recognizing the contributions of African American craftspeople during colonial times, according to a message from the  company’s president at the time. Pinkney was the illustrator and a renowned writer, scholar and educator named Broadus N. Butler (a Tuskegee Airman who was with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy during World War II) was the historical consultant.

    Illustration and text about African American blacksmiths.

    The booklet told of the many African American slaves and free men and women who were tanners, cobblers, coopers (they made barrels to hold food), weavers, hat makers, dressmakers, silversmiths, shipbuilders, carpenters and others who helped build the country.

    RCA ran an ad in Crisis magazine in 1978 promoting the free book, and noting that the artwork was hanging in the African American museum in Philadelphia, Pinkney’s hometown.

    I’ve written several blog posts about Pinkney, whose illustrations of African American children’s books are magnificent. I met him in Philadelphia a few years ago, and he autographed several of the books that I own. I’d love to have one of his illustrations, but unfortunately, none has come up at auction.

    As I read the booklet, I was amazed at the amount of history that was packed into it. In this age when you can find out information on just about anything on the web, I wondered what or if I could find some of these folks 35 years later. Here’s what I found:

    Elizabeth Keckley

    I had no problem finding out more about her. She was the dressmaker and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, and a master seamstress. The Lincoln family disapproved of her mightily when she wrote a book in 1868 detailing her life called “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.”

    Illustration and text about African American carpenters.

    Thomas Day

    One article described Day as North Carolina’s best-known furniture maker. A marker has been set up near his former home and shop in Milton, NC, where he owned one of the state’s largest cabinet shops before the Civil War. You can watch a video of his life and work, and admire some of his beautifully crafted furniture.

    Peter Simmons

    I could find little about this blacksmith, but found a lot about his protégé Philip Simmons, who was not related. Philip Simmons told of nagging the older man during the 1920s to teach him how to forge iron. The elder Simmons finally told the 8-year-old to come back when he was 13. Philip did, and inherited the business when Peter Simmons died. You can watch a video interview with Philip and see some of his work.

    Robert Smalls

    The booklet mentioned Smalls as a sail maker and rigger, but he was more known for commandeering a Confederate ship during the  Civil War and escaping with his family to the north. Smalls went on to become a South Carolina legislator and U.S. congressman for five terms during Reconstruction.

    Ned Anderson

    I could not find much about Anderson, a tanner who was turning hide into leather as early as 1729. He was a free man who was “bound” out as an apprentice to a tanner in Virginia.

    Harry MacHenry Pyles

    Pyles was a free man who supported his family with a harness and shoe mending shop in Kentucky. His wife was more famous than he: A slave who had been freed by her owner, she was a lecturer who spoke out against slavery, and was acquainted with Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists.

    Primus Fowle

    Fowle operated the printing presses of his owner Daniel Fowle beginning in 1756, producing the state’s oldest newspaper The New Hampshire Gazette. Fowle was a printer for 50 years.

    The cover of the book on black craftspeople in colonial times (left) and illustrator Jerry Pinkney (right).


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    1. That’s an all around well thought out blog..

    2. This is exactly the book I hoped I would find one day. For some time I’ve been thinking about doing research on the history of craft/art in the African-American/Black American community. Thanks for this post. I’ve just ordered a copy for myself.

      I hope this posting,buying event doesn’t become a habit 😉 !

      Thanks again.



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