Auction Finds Uncovering Relics of Our Past Mon, 21 Aug 2017 15:36:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dick Gregory never lost his “tell-it-like-it-is” streak Mon, 21 Aug 2017 15:36:08 +0000 Related posts:
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The first time I saw Dick Gregory was during a speech he gave at Ohio State University where I was a graduate student in the 1970s. By then, he had given up his lean years as a stand-up comedian, and was a strident student of America and one of its harshest critics.

He was full on at that performance, just as he was at the many others on countless college campuses in the decade after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

More than 20 years later, I met Gregory in person when I spent time interviewing him for a story about his life for Emerge magazine. One of the interviews was in New York, and a friend drove to the city with me to catch Gregory along with comedian Paul Mooney at Carolines. My interview was scheduled for the next day.

Gregory invited us to sit at his table as we watched Mooney lampoon just about everyone in much the same way as Gregory had always done. “I felt like a celeb,” my friend announced years later. Not everyone apparently did; a few white folks walked out, she recalled; apparently, they were not familiar with Mooney and his truths.

Gregory was pleasant, kind, unpretentious and serious about what he was doing and what he was about. So I was sad to hear that he passed away over the weekend. We will no longer hear his voice taking politicians and other others to task. But we do have his legacy to remind us of how naturally funny and intuitive he was.

Dick Gregory. Photo from

Dick Gregory. Photo from

At auction recently, I came across a campaign button from Gregory’s bid to become president of the United States as a write-in candidate – which I’m sure that he the pragmatist knew was never going to happen. Gregory got more than 47,000 votes.

My article about Gregory appeared in Emerge in the December/January 1997 issue. Here’s a dab of the top of it. Do a full read and you’ll learn a lot about his life’s journey:

“At a press conference about allegations that the CIA helped pump crack cocaine into a Los Angeles neighborhood, Dick Gregory is doing what he’s always done: making people laugh.

After weeks of radio shows, protests and arrests, Gregory and radio host Joe Madison have finally gotten the media’s attention. Reporters jam the room in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The faces behind the podium are stern, the mood somber. As Gregory put it earlier: ‘Nothing in the history of this planet is as foul as what we are about to uncover.’

Madison continues in these grave tones but at one point misquotes Gregory on a statistic. Gregory jumps in: “No, 83 percent of cocaine users are white,” he says and, then without warning, deadpans, “which is kind of amazing with those little nostrils.”

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Jazz singer Ann Robinson’s photos at Village Vanguard Wed, 16 Aug 2017 19:16:00 +0000 Related posts:
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I didn’t recognize the singer in the stack of photos among many others in a half-cut cardboard box on the auction table. She seemed to be bellowing out some song with all her heart, and having fun doing it.

She was identified on the back of the photo as Ann Robinson, who at that moment in time was performing at the Village Vanguard in New York City, 1941. The photographer was not identified.

The grouping contained at least a dozen or more duplicate photos of Robinson, whom I’d never heard of and neither had my auction buddy Janet, who considers herself a jazz connoisseur. I was obviously curious about who Robinson was, so I Googled.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

I could find very little about her life, and found only snatches about her career as a night-club singer and performer in a few musicals on Broadway during the 1940s. She sang before white audiences in several clubs in New York, including the Village Vanguard, which featured some of the top jazz performers; the Cafe Society Downtown; Le Ruban Bleu, the Three Deuces and the Elks Rendezvous. At the Le Ruban Bleu, she performed “gut-bucket rhythmic and riff rough-house vocalizing,” as one recent book noted. That seemed to be her specialty.

Robinson’s name came up frequently as one of Broadway producer Leonard Sillmans’ “New Faces” of 1943. Sillman’s revues – 13 of them from 1934 to 1968 – introduced new performers to Broadway, then to radio and to the movies (where they were short-lived in both cases).

Sillman is credited with giving many actors their first push at stardom. Henry Fonda, Eartha Kitt, Van Johnson and others had their first Broadway roles in his shows, which consisted of humorous sketches, dancing and singing. His most successful show was in 1952, with Kitt, Alice Ghostley and Paul Lynde. That show was made into a movie. Other performers included Tyrone Powers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Eve Arden and Imogene Coca.

He was the only Broadway producer who didn’t hesitate to cast newcomers in his shows, the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper noted in January 1943. He found them from everywhere – night clubs, vaudeville, modeling agencies, radio soap operas, local theater. For the 1943 show, he auditioned 300 young people, traveling across the country from Chicago to Hollywood to Maine, according to the newspaper.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

“Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1943 in New Shoes” opened at the Ritz Theater on Broadway in December 1942 and closed in March 1943 after 94 performances, according to a book about Broadway musicals of the 1940s. The third in the series, it was a two-act revue, with skits spoofing Orson Welles, Broadway agents, the medical field (about an operation on a sick shirt), beauty schools, among others.

Robinson sang alone and with the company in that production. A New York Post critic liked parts of the revue but called the show itself amateurish. She loved Robinson, though, according to the book.

“The Harlem singer Ann Robinson ‘picked up the show and carried it around with her whenever she came on,'” the book quoted critic Wilella Waldorf of the Post. “Apparently Robinson’s scat-singing style was something new to the critics and Waldorf described it as a ‘curious rhythmic exercise’ called ‘riffing.'”

Other critics were also enamored, writing that she improvised her songs and had a “gay breezy style.” One noted that she was the favorite of the audience that night.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

A Billboard critic found the show generally uninspiring and the skits not very funny, but praised Robinson’s performance. “Ann Robinson, young Negro singer with a great deal of stage presence and a dynamic delivery, helped put every number in which she appeared over with a bang. Her complete ease and naturalness came as a relief after the often forced and stagy deliveries of the others in the cast.”

Robinson was the only black member of the show, according to the Pittsburg Courier newspaper. By April, she was the main star at the Plantation Club on 52nd Street, a New York street filled with jazz clubs. And in September, she was in a variety and comedy show at Elks Rendezvous on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Robinson also toured the country with USO Camp shows entertaining soldiers.

In 1944, she was apparently headed back to Broadway in “On the Town” at the International Theater in a show whose music was written by Leonard Bernstein about three sailors on shore leave. It opened at the Adelphi Theater in December 1944;  I could find no mention of a show at the International.

For two months in 1945, she played a character named Chloe in a musical/comedy called “Memphis Bound,” also on Broadway. With an all-black cast, it was a two-act revue about a group who perform the play “H.M.S. Pinafore” to raise money to free their Memphis-bound ship from a sandbar.

In his autobiography “Bass Line,” musician Milt Hinton was said to have remembered Ann Robinson (who presumably was also known as Anna Robinson). Hinton was a noted bass player who took iconic photos of the era’s top jazz greats.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

Ann Robinson at the Village Vanguard in New York, 1941.

Hinton moved to Harlem in the late 1920s, and at some point met Robinson, who was a dancer with the Three Rhythm Queens at the Cotton Club (the dancers were said to have been there in 1935). Robinson was a free spirit (Hinton said she’d answer her door naked), sexually liberated and outspoken. She also wrote songs that others recorded – for which she was never credited – and her material and routines were copied by others.

Robinson showed singer/comedian Martha Raye some vocal stylings during the 1930s, according to Jet magazine. Hinton found the two very similar in their delivery: “… both were dancers with unusually wide mouths, who incorporated this physical characteristic into their comedic performances.” He said that Ray used some of Robinson’s material.

Robinson apparently made several three-minute records in 1939 with Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra, scatted on a song called “Harlem Woogie,” and performed as Anna Robinson on a song titled “Hungry Blues” written by Langston Hughes with music by James P. Johnson in a one-act opera. It was titled “De Organizer,” about organizing black sharecroppers in the South. The opera was performed in 1940 at Carnegie Hall, and CBS was going to use it for radio but found it too controversial.

Listen to her sing “Hungry Blues” and “Harlem Woogie” with Jimmy Johnson & His Orchestra.

Robinson was said to have become addicted to heroin and was murdered in an alley behind her Harlem home. She died in 1946.


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Early photos offer glimpse of desegregated classes Mon, 14 Aug 2017 11:39:16 +0000 Related posts:
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Where I come from, Bibb County, GA, you won’t likely see photos of black and white children in the same class before the 1960s. That just did not happen in the South – especially not in 1937.

So I am always surprised to see class photos that depict this intermingling, or at least a racial mix. What the photos don’t show is how the children interacted back in the classrooms or on the school grounds at recess.

Recently, I came across almost a dozen elementary school photos from 1937 that showed a handful of black boys and girls in each class. The photos gave up no information about the school, its name or its location, not even the photographer’s name. Written in fountain-pen ink in the top left margin of each photo was only the year, 1937. Graffiti (GS + PW) can be seen on the school wall in several of the photos.

An elementary school photo marked with the year 1937. There's no indentification on the photo.

An elementary school photo marked with the year 1937. There’s no identification on the photo.

I was very curious about how these photos ended up on the auction table. Was the school cleaning out its inventory? Or had these been in the possession of a dealer for years who was now cleaning out his own stash? In fact, tons of photos presumably from the same source have turned up recently at auction, including some pre-1950s pictures shot by a Cleveland amateur photographer.

Among the school photos at auction was one of children sitting in front of a Christmas tree. There was no date on the photo, but there was a photography studio: Branch Photo Service, which was stamped in green ink on the back along with a partial address and phone number.

From what I could decipher, the photographer was based in Yonkers, NY., which had a long march toward school desegregation. “… racial segregation was only an intermittent issue throughout the 1940s and 1950s (in Yonkers),” according to a 2004 report by Harvard and Princeton professors. The NAACP sued city and school officials, and a federal judge ruled in 1985 that those officials since 1949 had deliberately segregated both public schools and public housing by race. The schools began the desegregation process, but it would be 27 years before the lawsuit would eventually end.

Here is a sampling of the school photos:

Elementary school photo. This Christmas-time photo was stamped with the address of a Yonkers, NY, photography service.

Elementary school photo. This Christmas-time photo was stamped with the address of a Yonkers, NY, photography service.


Elementary school photo. The boy on the bottom row right has tattoos on his arm.

Elementary school photo, 1937. The white boy on the bottom row right has tattoos on his arm. The year is written in ink at the top left.


Elementary school photo.

Elementary school photo, 1937.


Elementary school photo.

Elementary school photo, 1937.


Elementary school photo.

Elementary school photo, 1937. While everyone else looks straight  into the camera, the black boy on the front row looks downward.


Elementary school photo.

Elementary school photo, 1937.

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It looks like a home phone but this one’s for the car Wed, 09 Aug 2017 12:19:52 +0000 Related posts:
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You couldn’t tell how the phone was used just by looking at it. A home phone was the first thing that came to my mind, even though it looked rather strange. The phone was in the shape of the old Princess phones from the 1960s, but it had a speaker where the rotary dial should be.

The words “ITT Autocom” were stamped in red on the front, sandwiched between two knobs. Laying next to the phone was a bright yellow card promoting a “Cinderella” mobile telephone for your car.

I was looking at an early car phone – something I didn’t recall seeing at auction before. As soon as I left the phone in its spot on the auction table, another curious auction-goer stopped to take a look, too. “I wouldn’t want to be stopped the police using one of these,” he said, joking.

ITT Autocom car phone, circa 1950.

ITT Autocom car phone, circa 1950s, up for sale at auction.

Back when these phones were available – and I’m sure not many people had them – the police didn’t worry about people causing accidents while talking (or texting). With these, you’d have to stop the car; it’d be tricky to try to talk and drive while balancing the phone between your ear and shoulder.

The yellow card was trying mightily to sell the Cinderella phone, blaring:

“Extend your telephone service!. Your personal car or business vehicle can be equipped with an ITT Autocom ‘Cinderella’ telephone using Mobile Telephone Service. … If you are out of your car the operator will take a message for you.”

At first, I figured that this phone was a Cinderella phone but I found one of those on the web. It had the customary rotary dial and it was stamped Cinderella. One site assumed the dial served no purpose and was not functional. I suspect that the auction phone was an ITT Autocom mobile radiotelephone, for which I found an ad noting that the phone could be used to make “important calls,” change appointments, take customer calls, make emergency calls, hold conference calls, reroute shipments and communicate in isolated areas. It was obviously meant for businessmen.

Up-close view of ITT Autocom car phone.

Up-close view of ITT Autocom car phone.

The auction phone came with a volume button and a squelch button (to tamp down on the noise when there was no one to call).

I was curious about the when and how of the phone. The earliest car phones were bulky, and they, too, relied on radio waves as our phones do today. Bell Laboratories and others were said to be experimenting with them in the 1920s. At least one private person was also tinkering.

A man named W.W. McFarlane of Philadelphia used a “wireless telephone” to communicate with his wife 500 yards away in their garage as he sat in the back seat of a chauffeured car in 1920. He spoke to her through a transmitter while several other people in the car listened on a receiver as she answered. No one had yet figured out how to transmit and receive in one device.

Bell was still at it in the late 1940s, becoming the first in June 1946 to introduce mobile calls to and from cars. Testing the system, a Southwestern Bell foreman picked up a handset from a unit underneath his dashboard and spoke into it. The system had been developed by a team from Bell, Western Electric Corp. and AT&T. A few months later, Motorola’s car radiotelephone equipment was used by Illinois Bell in Chicago. Other companies were also offering car phones, including General Electric.

ITT Cinderella car phone, circa 1950s.

ITT Cinderella car phone, circa 1950s. Photo from Geoff Fors radio site.

At the time, Western Electric Corp. designed the new car phones for Bell, and Bell Laboratories developed the overall system for operating them. The phones were built on top of police radio equipment, with the addition of a handset and decoder that rang when a number was dialed. The Western Electric car phone itself required a receiver and transmitter in the trunk, along with a phone box and headset under the dashboard. Check out this page to see how the phones were used in a car.

By the late 1950s, car phones were upgraded with transistors along with miniature tubes that didn’t drain the batteries. They also had multiple channels.

The car phones were apparently not cheap. As early as 1984, GE was waiting for the FCC to approve a phone it was proposing that would cost under $500. The phone would be able to connect two people in cars 30 miles apart. The range at the time was five miles.

A promo card for the ITT Cinderella car phone.

A promo card for the ITT Cinderella car phone.

GE wasn’t the only one working on a better way to communicate in the car. Audiotel had a cellular phone that could record up to eight messages when you weren’t around. Spectrum Cellular Communications had a modem-like device that allowed the phone to transmit data to a laptop in your car.

I could find out very little info on the web about the Autocom phone for sale at auction. It resembled Western Electric’s Princess phone presumably because ITT was licensed to make Princess phones.


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Cleveland society through lens of Jimmy Baynes Mon, 07 Aug 2017 15:57:14 +0000 Related posts:
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I was flipping through a box of photos of African Americans posing at fancy events when I decided to flip one of them over to see if it was identified. Most times, folks don’t bother to write much of anything on the backs of photos offered for auction.

There was no mention of when this event took place or where, but I got something just as good: the name of the photographer. Jimmy Baynes of Cleveland, OH. He had stamped his name on the back of several of the photos, and some even carried his address.

Intrigued, I Googled him, and realized that he was among the many black photographers who shot society, cultural and political photos of African Americans during the early part of the 20th century. They gave their communities positive images while others depicted them in awful images like the one I saw on the wall at this same auction house of little black children in a tree along with a derogatory message.

Photo by Jimmy Baynes.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.

He joined an illustrious group that included Roy DeCarava in Harlem, the Scurlocks in Washington, DC; Teenie Harris in Pittsburgh, PA, John W. Mosley in Philadelphia, twins Morgan and Marvin Smith in Harlem, among others. Even before them was James Van Der Zee, who photographed black folks in Harlem in the 1920s. On an exhibit wall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC has a list of many of these photographers who were located in cities across the country.

The museum has mounted exhibits of some of these African Americans, books have been written about them, and PBS offered a series on them.

Baynes was a new one for me. The photos at auctions were primarily society photos, along with several from what looked like a church banquet because one of the figures in the photos was identified as a minister.

Photographer Jimmy Baynes. Photo from Jimmy Baynes Collection, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives.

Photographer Jimmy Baynes. Photo from Jimmy Baynes Collection, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives.

Baynes was an amateur photographer whose real job was as a postal worker. He began shooting in the 1950s and did so for more than three decades, capturing the life of African Americans in the city. He eventually opened his own Baynes Foto Service, providing pictures to local newpapers and magazines.

When celebrities came to town – whether they were jazz, R&B or rock – he photographed them. Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Jordan, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Platters, the Drifters and others, along with local entertainers and local venues.

A collection of the best of his photos are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives in Cleveland. Most of the photos in the collection are said to focus on music and entertainment.

Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.

Baynes was born James Hamilton Baynes Jr. on July 12, 1922 in Cleveland, the oldest of 11 children, according to a biography accompanying the collection. His mother taught him how to play the piano, and he later learned to play the harp. At some point, he fell in love with photography.

He could be seen at local events in his dark suits with his camera, shooting Polaroids of folks and selling them for $5 a piece. He shot weddings, beauty contests, burlesque shows and live music.

Some of his works were part of a group show during the summer of 2010 at a gallery in Brooklyn, NY, a few months before he died in September 2010. The show was titled “Polaroid: Instant Joy.”

Here are some of his photos from the auction:

Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.


Jimmy Baynes photo.

Jimmy Baynes photo at auction.

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Paint-by-numbers kits make everyone an unlikely artist Wed, 02 Aug 2017 14:18:41 +0000 Related posts:
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I had seen a painting like this one before at the auction house, and I had ignored it. It looked like an illustration out of some book and it didn’t move me one bit.

Then this one appeared (perhaps it was the same painting), on a different wall in the same room, and I was about to ignore it, too, until I read the description.

“Vintage paint-by-number landscape (oil on cardboard) w/ painted oak frame. Unsigned. Fine condition.”

"Winter Shadows," a paint-by-numbers painting by Craftint.

“Winter Shadows,” a paint-by-numbers painting by Craftint that was up for sale.

Wow, I thought. I never expected it to be a paint-by-numbers painting. I knew of them but nothing about how they came about.

It seems that paint-by-number kits were a phenomenon in the 1950s, so much so that the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution mounted an exhibit about the artwork in 2001. The kits were first offered in 1951 by Palmer Paint Company in Detroit under the name Craft Master, enticing would-be painters with the slogan “Every man a Rembrandt.”

Anyone could be an artist, and many tried their hand at it. By 1954, the Palmer company had sold 12 million kits. The images over the years included landscapes, animals, nursery rhymes, clowns, Native Americans, and island and religious scenes, and much more.

An up-close view of a part of the painting.

An up-close view of a part of the painting at auction.

The kits got their start with Max S. Klein, owner of the paint company, who wanted to find a way to sell more paint. He turned to artist Dan Robbins who had been making paint kits for kids. Robbins came up with the idea of paint-by-numbers art kits, which amounted to using numbered colors on a numbered outline (first the kits contained rolled canvas and later, cardboard).

Robbins’ first paintings were abstracts that did go over well initially with Palmer and later with most buyers, who preferred realism.

“I decided to do a simple abstract painting because that seemed easy to do in segments of color,” Robbins says on the Paint By Number Museum website. “Abstracts were popular at the time and seemed like an artistic way of explaining the idea. So, with a little Braque, a little Picasso and a lot of Robbins, I created a 12×16 painting in 22 colors. I called it Abstract No.1. My boss got the idea, but hated the painting so I designed The Fishermen for our first kit. However, we included Abstract No.1 in the catalog of our first six kits. Eventually it became very famous when someone entered a completed Abstract No.1 in an art show and won. The judges were quite embarrassed but the prize resulted in lots of debate about the concept of art and lots of publicity about paint by numbers. Abstract No. 1 became so famous that it has been reissued as a commemorative kit.”

The kits were especially popular on the West Coast, and Palmer began selling them overseas. Soon, more artists were hired to create the artwork along with Robbins. Craft Master attracted competition from other companies.

The concept of paint-by-numbers was not new. Michelangelo was said to have used the process to paint the Sistine Chapel frescoes during the 16th century, numbering various sections for his students to paint.

At left is Dan Robbins' first paint-by-numbers image. At right is the painting he completed.

At left is the line art for Dan Robbins’ first paint-by-numbers “Abstract No. 1.” At right is the painting he completed of the image. Photo of painting from, line art from drawn from the Smithsonian exhibit.

In a 2005 interview, Robbins says he was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci who used numbered patterns for his apprentices to block in areas of paintings that he would finish up. Artist Adam Grant created Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as a paint-by-numbers, and it was said to be one of the most popular.

This explosion of unfettered art had its share of critics, who saw these folks – whom they called “number filler inners” – as wasting their time. Critics saw these works as a stain on the true art that derived from talent. In some instances, the paintings gave would-be artists a greater appreciation of the intricacies of art and the world around them. Some even drew outside the lines, and added or subtracted elements from the prescribed images – making the works their own.

Practically everyone was into the kits. At the White House in the 1950s, President Eisenhower’s appointment secretary Thomas Edwin Stephens set up in the West Wing a gallery of such paintings (along with amateur works) by members and friends of the administration, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “Swiss Village” and Nelson Rockefeller’s “Old Mission.” Rockefeller was a special assistant to Eisenhower.

Untitled, 2009, by African American artist Kerry James Marshall shows a paint-by-numbers painting in the background.

Untitled (2009) by African American artist Kerry James Marshall shows a paint-by-numbers portrait in the background of the artist in the foreground.

Most of the paintings, though, hung in people’s home. The kits came with a pamphlet offering suggestions on how to frame and hang them, and how to group them. The kits remained popular for several decades (and can still be purchased), and inspired such professionals in the Pop Art movement as Andy Warhol.

Some African American artists were also thusly influenced. A retrospective of works by Kerry James Marshall at the Met Breur last year included several paintings of artists creating their own portraits by using paint-by-numbers. (Robbins did a similar portrait of himself.) Artist William Tolliver used a paint-by-number kit to learn how to mix and blend colors, especially to get skin tones right, when he was a boy (he was born in 1951). Artist Dean Mitchell remembered his grandmother giving him a kit when he was 5 years old, but he didn’t like it and started painting what he did like.

By the 1990s paint-by-numbers artwork were considered collectibles. I learned that the painting at auction was titled “Winter Shadows” and was created by a company called Craftint.


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Architect’s 1972 drawing of Berry Gordy’s LA office Mon, 31 Jul 2017 10:44:31 +0000 Related posts:
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The words in black lettering stood out very clearly among the other papers, documents and posters on the auction table. “Mr. Berry Gordy’s Office.”

They were printed beneath architectural drawings of an office space created with the precision of a work of art. There were four small separate colored drawings of various rooms presumably of the office of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Each was glued to a black cardboard back.

One drawing showed the complete office; another with a conference table surrounded by high-back burgundy cushiony chairs with brass rivets;  another with a U-shaped executive desk with credenza and hutch, and another with a schematic of the room that also showed a kitchen, sauna, video/TV room and more.

Architectural drawings of what is presumably Berry Gordy's office in Los Angeles, 1972.

Architectural drawings of what is presumably Berry Gordy’s office in Los Angeles, 1972.

The drawings were made by a Los Angeles architectural firm in 1972 and were apparently for Gordy’s new offices at 6522 Sunset Boulevard, the western headquarters for Motown after its move from Detroit that year.

On the back of the board was more information: “mixed media, ink, watercolor, lithograph. 1972, Los Angeles.”

Motown Records had long been – and still is – a child of Detroit, where Gordy opened his now-famous studio that produced hit after hit during the 1960s. Its first headquarters is now a museum on West Grand Boulevard. Gordy started this amazing record company in 1959 with $800 he borrowed from his family.

Practically everyone knows the history of Motown and its successes: 110 Top 10 hits during the 1960s, catapulting Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and others into a stratosphere that many singers never reach, and making them into household names.

A view of the office space showing the grand piano and other furniture.

A view of the office space showing the grand piano, conference table and executive desk, along with wood-beam ceiling.

In Detroit, Gordy moved Motown Records from the boulevard location to the Donovan Building on Woodward Avenue that he bought in 1968 (it was demolished in 2006). In Los Angeles, he opened a state-of-the art recording studio near the MoWest headquarters.

When Gordy moved to LA, he left a smaller operation behind in Detroit, run by his sister Esther Gordy Edwards, who founded the museum (she died in 2011). Some of the label’s best-known artists stayed behind while others followed Gordy. He already had ties to Los Angeles (he had kept an office there since 1963 and built a house there a few years later), but didn’t pull up stakes from Detroit until years later. He wanted to be close to Hollywood and expand into movie-making and TV. MoWest never reached the altitude of Motown in Detroit during the 1960s. It lasted only about two years.

Gordy sold Motown Records in 1988 to MCA, and the company changed hands several times. Jobete Music Co., the publishing arm of Motown, is now owned by EMI Music Publishing and is still located in the Sunset Boulevard location. The music catalog consists of the songs that made Motown famous and Gordy rich.

An architectural drawing of the conference table draped by an elaborate chandelier.

Architectural drawing of the conference table beneath elaborate chandeliers.


A schematic drawing of Berry Gordy's Los Angeles office.

A schematic drawing of the entire office space, including a kitchen, sauna and video/TV room.


Architect drawing of an executive desk, and credenza and hutch.

Architectural drawing of an executive desk, and credenza and hutch.


Label with architectural firm and "Motown" on the drawing for Berry Gordy's office.

Label with Los Angeles architectural firm and “Motown” on the drawing for the office.


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1900s Hampton photos illustrate students at work Wed, 26 Jul 2017 16:31:24 +0000 Related posts:
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I had learned of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photos after finding a ticket stub at auction for the 1900 Paris International Exposition. She had been commissioned by Hampton Institute to photograph the progress of a school that had been founded shortly after slavery was abolished.

Now, before me at auction was a hard-back catalog of 44 of those photographs from an exhibit mounted in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The catalog was titled “The Hampton Album,” and on its cover was a photo of students repairing a stairwell at the home of the school’s treasurer.

Johnston, a white woman who was one of the country’s first female professional photographers, shot the pictures during the winter of 1899-1900 at what was then called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.

A dress-making class at Hampton Institute.

A dress-making class at Hampton Institute.

The “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris expo was spearheaded by W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas J. Calloway, a lawyer who was a special agent for the exhibit, with assistance from African American historian Daniel A.P. Murray at the Library of Congress and Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Its aim, DuBois said, was to show “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves. In a way this marks an era in the history of the Negroes of America.”

The exhibit was housed in a right-corner section in the American Pavilion in a large building on the Seine River. It consisted of photographs, maps, books, musical compositions, poetry and much more on the culture of African Americans.

"Hampton Album" cover with photos of students building the staircase at the treasurer's house.

“The Hampton Album” cover with photos of students building the staircase at the treasurer’s house. This was likely the home of Alexander Purves, who held that position at the time.

“From Hampton there is an especially excellent series of photographs illustrating the Hampton idea of ‘teaching by doing,'” DuBois wrote in 1900. Hampton was one of five black schools represented. Here’s Calloway’s report on the overall exhibit.

Johnston’s 159 works “consisted of original photographs only; there was no space in the American Pavilion for actual examples of the manual and domestic arts which Hampton professed,” according to the catalog. She was the only woman invited to a photographic assembly held at the same time, and spoke in French about American artist-photographers.

Her Hampton photos won a Grand Prix award as part of the “Negro” exhibit, which also won a Grand Prix. Her photos of African American students at public schools in Washington, DC, won a Gold Medal.

Both the Hampton and DC photos were part of a larger undertaking from 1899 to 1902 that included photos at Tuskegee, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania (criticized for taking Native American children from their homes to be “Americanized”), among others.

Self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1895. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1896. Photo from the Library of Congress.

By the 1880s, Johnston had gained a national reputation as a skilled photographer. She was born in West Virginia, spent some of her childhood years in Washington, and studied in Paris and at the Smithsonian Institution. She provided photos for articles in several magazines, including Harper’s Weekly and Ladies Home Journal. She was employed by a news photo syndicate, and had access to several presidential administrations as an unofficial photographer.

Soon, she became an art and commercial photographer, her works shown at galleries in New York and Washington. Johnston also wrote books and articles on photography with her photos as illustrations. Over 60 years, she was known for her portraits, documentaries, and news and architectural photography. She also shot historical buildings in the South. She died in 1952 at age 88 in New Orleans.

At Hampton, Johnston was commissioned by the then-president to take 150 photos of the school, according to the catalog. Her subjects were posed and almost never looked into the camera, which some have criticized because the photos seem to deny the humanity of the subjects. The students appear stilted like mannequins in the pictures.

"Class in American History." This is a photo of Louis Firetail, a Sioux-Crow Creek Indian, in tribal clothing.

Chief Louis Firetail, a Sioux-Crow Creek Indian, speaks to a class in American History.

Johnston’s photos also included Native American students, who were accepted at Hampton in a program that lasted until 1923. The first of these students arrived in 1878 from a prison in St. Augustine, FL, where they had been detained after the Red River War in Texas aimed at relocating several tribes. The aim of the Hampton’s founder Samuel C. Armstrong – as was the common thinking of the day – was to primarily strip them of their culture with an eye toward assimilation.

Here are other photos from the catalog:


Football team at the school.


"A Hampton Graduate at home."

A Hampton graduate and his family in their middle-class two-story home.


"A Hampton Graduate's home."

The home of a Hampton graduate.


"Indian Orchestra."

An orchestra of Native American students.


"Physics. The Screw as applied to the cheese press."

Hampton students in a physics class working with cheese presses.


"Agriculture. Plant life. Study of plants or a 'plant society.'"

Students in an agriculture class studying plants.


"Post graduate class 1900."

A post-graduate class in 1900.


A student serving dinner.

A young woman serves dinner.


Hampton students in a shoe-making class.

Students in a shoe-making class.


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A stop-off at Tuskegee to honor an Airman uncle Mon, 24 Jul 2017 16:56:41 +0000 Related posts:
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My uncle Charles – whom some of us called Dye and his siblings called CW – was a Tuskegee Airman, but I didn’t fully recognize it until long after he had died.

I should have remembered, though, because he mentioned his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during an interview for a family reunion newspaper we published in 1989. A good friend, who is my “adopted” sister, interviewed him and I edited the story. I suppose I was so caught up in helping to compile the newspaper and write articles that I brushed past this important piece of his and this country’s history.

Recently, I was driving down Interstate 85 in Alabama and saw a sign for Tuskegee, and the school that Booker T. Washington founded came to mind. I was headed to a family reunion in New Orleans with my niece and two of her friends, but knew I had to stop at Tuskegee University just to drive through the campus.

Cadets and their instructor go over flight procedures at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Photo from a board at Moton Field.

Cadets and their instructor go over flight procedures at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Photo from a board at Moton Field historic site.

Along the way, I spotted a sign for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. It was located at Moton Field, the place where nearly 1,000 black men trained to be airplane pilots and another 9,000 men and women worked to ensure that those pilots and their planes were in tip-top shape.

The hangars where the men trained have been restored into a museum, and the grounds look much the way they looked in the early 1940s (as shown in photos on the site). Part of Moton Field – now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service – is a green open lawn framed on one side by freestanding boards bearing information and photos of the men. Farther afield are the hangars and other buildings near an airport strip.

At auction, I’ve come across photos of men who were likely Tuskegee Airmen, and I saw George Lucas’ “Red Tails” documentary that aired in 2012. So I’m very familiar with the airmen. I wish I had been more attentive to my uncle Dye’s time there.

My uncle Charles Howard. This photo was likely taken while he was training at Moton Field.

My uncle Charles Howard. This photo was likely taken while he was in training to be a pilot. It was published in our family reunion newspaper.

Charles Howard enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Jan. 15, 1945, and was discharged two years later, Jan. 27, 1947. The United States had entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The federal government first authorized training for African Americans in 1939, with Howard University and Hampton Institute joining Tuskegee in providing preliminary training. By 1941, Tuskegee was the only place that offered flight training for pilots. Moton Field was built by the school in 1941 after it contracted with the government to provide flight training, according to a board on the historic site.

Early on, the cadets of the 99th Fighter Squadron did little more than train because a recalcitrant military refused to deploy them into combat overseas. It would be about two years before the squadron went overseas.

LIst of support personnel who are also considered Tuskegee Airmen.

List of support personnel who are also considered Tuskegee Airmen. Photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

My uncle entered a segregated Army with units separated by race (before the 1940s blacks were barred from flying Army aircraft).

“During World War II, all you needed was good health and a high school diploma,” he said in the interview. “You didn’t find many college men. You didn’t have all those sophisticated computers. It was simple during World War II.”

He trained to be a pilot with the 332nd Fighter Group, commonly known as the Red Tails because of the color they painted their tail sections. The 332nd had become active in 1942 and consisted of three squadrons that received advanced trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Along with the 99th Fighter Squadron (the first activated), the 332nd served as fighters and escorts in North Africa, Sicily and Italy during the war.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a Tuskegee Airman graduate and commander of the 332nd and 99th Fighter Squadron. This photo is on a board on the Moton Field site.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was trained at Moton Field and became commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 99th Fighter Squadron. This photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

They were commanded by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who himself had come through training at Moton Field in the first class of five cadets of the 99th Squadron in 1941. Davis would become their leader.

“Whites had AT-6, the better planes,” my uncle said. “Blacks had Piper Cubs. We never had the new planes. We had the hand-me-downs. When they would build some new planes they’d send them to the whites at the other bases and the Negroes would get the old ones.

“Flying an airplane was like flying a car, if you had the nerve and could stand the altitude.”

The war officially ended in September 1945 when Japan surrendered. Germany had surrendered in May of that year. The 332nd was also deactivated that year. My uncle saw no combat.

Cadets watch as their pre-flight instruction explains a maneuver, 1941. This photo is on one of the boards at the Moton site.

Cadets watch as their pre-flight instruction explains a maneuver, 1941. Behind them is a Piper Cub used in training. This photo is on a board at the Moton Field site.

African American men came from all over the country to train to be pilots. Pre-flight training was conducted at a small field called the Kennedy Field (where Tuskegee first held training), according to information on the boards at the site. Next was Moton Field for primary flight training and then to the military-run Tuskegee Army Air Field for advanced training. Moton is the only one that still stands.

The Moton airfield was closed in 1946, and by then some women were among the support personnel. More than 990 men became pilots from 1941 to 1946, and more than a third of them saw combat as fighter pilots. Others were later trained as bomber pilots but the war ended before they could be deployed.

The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of more than just fighter and bomber pilots. They were also the many support personnel that made the program work, and they are acknowledged on the boards in the park area in Alabama. They were mechanics, instructors, air traffic controllers, gunners, electricians, firefighters, cooks, musicians, photographers, medical staffers and more.

“Over 10,000 African American men and women took part in the Tuskegee Airmen experience,” according to information on the boards. “All of them – not just the pilots – are Tuskegee Airmen.”

The park area on the Moton Field site.

The park area and parking lot on the Moton Field site.

I knew little about the women pilots who trained black men before they entered the Tuskegee program and also those who served as support personnel in the program.

After my uncle left Tuskegee in 1945, he served a year as a staff sergeant in Europe.

“Blacks were still at Tuskegee,” he said. “They didn’t mix until the month I came out, January 1947. That’s when they started moving blacks into white units.”

That’s also the year the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order banning racial segregation in the military.

Motion Field as it looks today.

Motion Field as it looks today.


Moton Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Moton Field, 1945. The hangar in foreground was built in 1941 and the one in back in 1943. Photos from boards at the Moton Field site.


A quote on the boards at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.

A quote on a board at the Moton Field site.

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Made-to-order men’s suits in Sears 1929 catalog Wed, 19 Jul 2017 10:52:44 +0000 Related posts:
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There was a time, as everyone knows, when you could buy just about anything from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. I was surprised to see, though, that Sears also sold “made -to-order” suits for men.

At auction recently, I came across a Sears Made-To-Order Clothes catalog for men and young men, Fall and Winter, 1929-30. It contained black and white photos – with splashes of orange – of dapper men in Sears suits and overcoats whose designs the buyers chose and Sears made. The orders were shipped for free.

Most interesting about the catalog were the small rectangles of fabric swatches that men – or their women – could see and feel in making their decision: Should it be the Wonder Cloth “As fine as silk, Wears like iron,” “Pure Australian Worsted with Silk Stripes.” Or the “Pure Virgin Wool Worsted.”

A Sears made-to-order suit in Wonder Cloth, with fabric swaths.

A Sears made-to-order suit in Wonder Cloth, with fabric swatches.

The catalog also included a page of instructions on how men should measure their back, arm, chest, waist, outside and inside seams, and “seat.” I wonder how many had to be returned because the measurements were off.

Based on the illustrations in the catalog, these suits were designed for men who were considered leaders in their professions. In fact, one page showed suits specific to them: the Varsity for university men, the Councilor and the Broker.

Sears had been selling everything under the sun in its catalogs for more than 100 years when the “Big Book” – that’s what the general catalog was called – was discontinued in 1993. It all began when Richard Sears in 1888 sent out mailers advertising watches and jewelry. That mailer evolved into the Sears mail-order catalog, first offered in 1893 with such items as sewing machines, saddles, guns, buggies, bicycles and clothing for sale at prices lower than retail stores.

The front cover of the Sears made-to-order catalog.

The front cover of the Sears made-to-order catalog.

Sears was not the first mail-order catalog. Macy’s and Montgomery Ward had their own catalogs, but Richard Sears apparently had a knack for promoting his products. He wrote most of the text in the magazine at this time, and was always adding products to his inventory or creating some new advertising gimmick.

The mail order business had its detractors, as shown in a 1909 article in the Farm Implements trade publication that noted Sears’ retirement, and $10 million to $25 million worth.

In 1898, Sears started printing specialty magazines to sell specific products, such as mixed paints and photographic items. He expanded his catalog’s reach to different groups of people – hiring translators, offering wigs for African American women.

Two pages of fabric swaths.

Two pages of fabric swatches.

The 1905 catalog included color and textured wallpaper samples, and actual swatches of fabric from men’s suits so customers could feel “the weight and softness of the material.” The company also added paint samples in subsequent catalogs.

I could find no made-to-order Sears specialty catalog for women’s suits, but the National Cloak and Suit Co. did offer sales of these types of garments.

Here are some pages from the Sears men’s made-to-order specialty catalog.

Wool and silk worsted fabric samples.

Wool and silk worsted fabric samples.


A photo demonstration of how the suit is made.

A photo demonstration of the workmanship that goes into making the suit.


Made-to-order overcoats.

Made-to-order overcoats.


A page of clothing accessories for men, along with instructions for measuring the body.

A page of pants and vests styles, along with instructions for measuring the body.


Sears made-to-order suits for men who were leaders.

Sears made-to-order suits for men who were leaders.

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