Black Americana is openly for sale in Nebraska antique stores. Should it be?

Dec. 14, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

A racist statue of three black boys eating watermelon available for purchase at a Lincoln antique shop. Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News

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“Black Americana” or “Black Memorabilia” are terms used to describe collectibles, usually from the early 1900s with African American themes. Today, such figures have become rarities and are openly for sale in Nebraska antique shops. Public Media News explores the ethical value of selling what many would consider offensive relics of the past.

Mammies, Coons, Sambos and Pickaninnies. When people go antiquing, representations of those stereotypes are likely the last thing most people have on their minds.

And yet, in one Lincoln antique shop -among them are walls, shelves and racks filled with artifacts lies a statue behind glass. It depicts three impoverished Black boys, chomping on watermelon - their plaster skin painted over with a brown hue.

The owner of the antique store housing the statue declined to be interviewed.

Lincoln antique appraiser Tom Bassett sits on his couch with his cat.
Lincoln Appraiser Tom Bassett sits on his couch with his cat. Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News

The sight begs the question: Why is such a blatantly offensive item openly for sale in Nebraska in the year 2022?

According to Lincoln appraiser Tom Basset, there’s a simple answer; there’s a market for it…

“Black memorabilia, If somebody collects it, then they're out looking for it, they're willing to pay a good price for it,” Basset said. “Sometimes they will never, ever sell it, it'll just be them. And then their kids get it, whatever they do with it.…but it’s certainly something that not everybody would respect.”

From a collector’s standpoint, Basset explains the offensive nature of the material can be secondary to the sheer enjoyment of adding to your collection.

“And so the mindset is more,” said Basset. “I have five pieces, why not have 10? Once I have 10, I might as well have 18 or 20.”

Not every antique store feels the same when it comes to selling Black Americana.

On a sleepy Tuesday morning, Sid Conner of Conner's Architectural Antiques helps a customer gauge the value of a lamp.

Sid Conner stands at his storefront, an array of lamps hung up behind him.
Antique sotre owner Sid Conner is vehemently against the sale of Black Americana in his store. Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News

Conner, a white man, has been dealing in antiques for decades and says he while he doesn’t disparage those who do deal in Black Americana, he is vehemently against it. He says he gets his conviction from his father, a former teacher and ordained Methodist minister who was fiercely committed to equal rights.

At one time, there was a statewide association of antique store owners where they could openly debate ethical issues, “but we've lost an awful lot of dealers and most of the people that we knew that were in that have retired or passed away now,” Conner said.

Even if there were a platform to debate antique ethics, Conner says the political climate has gotten so polarizing, getting owners unified behind a stance would be difficult, to say the least.

“There are certainly some that would feel that any kind of restriction would be imposing too much an oversight on their particular business,” Conner said. “I wouldn't feel that way, but again, it's because it really wouldn't affect us because I won't deal in that anyhow.”

He said he also understands that there are those who buy for historical or educational purposes, “but as a private collection, or as people that are dealing in a market for those other pieces, I don't feel that being a part of that in any way, is beneficial to society. ”

One Nebraskan who sees no problem with the buying and selling of Black Americana is LaVon Stennis-Williams, a black woman. She says she picked up the habit from her mom.

LaVon Stennis-Williams stands next to the Black Americana section of her Black Collectables Exhibit
Omaha resident LaVon Stennis-Williams is open to the buying and selling of Black Americana and has a collection of her own. Phtoto by William Padmore Nebraska Public Media News

“My mother would always make sure she purchased the mammy figures that she might see in secondhand stores,” Stennis-Williams said. “She was saying, 'You know, those are our folks. We're not going to leave them behind.'”

In addition to running a nonprofit, she also runs Mamma’s Attic, a boutique museum out of The Center mall in East Omaha. She’s displaying a portion of her Black Americana collection as part of her current exhibit charting black collectibles through American history.

From an ethical standpoint, LaVon sees no problem with the buying or selling of Black Americana, because they’re made available for people like her to buy.

“If I can afford to buy it, I purchase it, because it gives me a chance to grow my collection that I use for educational purposes,” Stennis-Williams said. “And I've told my daughter, in my death to make sure it goes into the hands of a museum or a learning institution.”

For others, the question is a bit more complex. Eric Ewing is the Executive Director of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, which has collected several pieces of donated Black Americana for its own exhibits. While he has no problem with people like Williams using their collection for education, he would rather antique dealers not traffic in what he considers emblems of Black suffering.

“The word is - so we're not pimped, our miseries aren't pimped,” Ewing said. He adds that certain depictions of Black Americana can also be traumatizing, and so extra care should be used when displaying them to the public.

For antique dealers that continue to display Black Americana for sale, he would ask them to consider putting themselves in the shoes of a Black person visiting their shop.

“Not just us as adults, but how does that make a young African American child feel?” said Ewing.

Back at the antique shop in Lincoln, the statue of the three Black boys eating watermelon remains behind glass – waiting for someone with the right motivation or at least enough money, to buy them.

A Black figurine for sale in a Lincoln antique store
A Black figurine for sale in a Lincoln antique store. Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News