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"A Half Century of Black Memorabilia: 1890-1940s": manuscript draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1970 (year approximate) to 1996 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file.

Digital ID



man000940. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Digitized materials: physical originals can be viewed in Special Collections and Archives reading room

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OCR transcription





In 1619, the year before the Mayflower landed, the first blacks arrived to what became English North. America. For the almost three and three-quarters century since then, that group, more than any other, has experienced many changes in status. From indenture servitude, freedom, slavery to emancipation, Blacks have encountered a variety of circumstances and perceptions in America.
For many years, the presence and contributions of black people to the American experience was excluded from the textbooks and the curricula of the nation's schools. This has been true for all levels of education— elementary through university. Generally, only those with a personal interest--research or ancestry—have taken the time, had the disposition and wherewiththal to investigate those misplaced chapters of the nation's history. The public, at large, have not had access to that data.
The absence of that information from our general pool of knowledge of Americana has contributed in causing non-blacks to develop negative mythological perceptions of the subject group. The group itself has had its self-concept debased. All have suffered negative consequences due to the void.
Carter G. Woodson is the father of Black History Month, In recognizing the adverse affects the absence of black history had on black children's self concepts, he formulated the idea that one week should be set aside to acknowledge the contributions of black people to the development of the United States. He hoped that by doing so that black youth would have the opportunity to discover a meaningful past and therefore aspire to greater achievements. Over the years, that small acorn of effort grew to a national, month long celebration. Originally, most other Americans paid little attention to Black History Week. That has gradually changed but, still, many white Americans view such activities as "a waste
of time."
Coinciding with the efforts of Woodson and others to project a positive image of black history and culture, activities in media continued to denigrate and off-set those efforts in the larger community. Over the years, a great assortment of art appeared which presented negative stereotypical views of black people. That work has manifested itself in several mediums. While it is most often found in advertisements for both regional and national products, it is also seen in bric-a-brac, newspaper humor columns and comic strips and in functional home decorations.
That art work, which was usually quite elaborate, described black people as either extremely grotesque or realistically. However, in both instances, the representations were stereotypical either in appearance or in the tasks engaged in by the subject. The artists were generally white Americans who found a ready and receptive audience and market for their efforts. Those efforts not only nationalized the negative perceptions of black people in the United States but they also had a universalizing effect as well in that in later years, similar caricatures of blacks appeared abroad on the packaging of productes manufactured in those countries. England, as seen by some of the examples shown in the greeting cards, post cards and merchandise inserts was heavily involved in the practice.
In many ways, those representational pieces were quite well done. The work was elaborate, done in great detail and, upon close examination, exquisitely done. They appeared in Currier and Ives collections, Saturday Evening Post covers and advertisements therein, National Geographic, as wine bottle labels, calendars, in connection with New Deal recovery efforts especially the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and were used by a great majority of the businesses of the times in advertising their products.
The artifacts in this collection represents approximately a half- century of mis-representation of black people in media. That misrepresentation has had disastrous results in a society predicated on segregation—de jure or de facto—in which non-blacks have had little opportunity, historically, to have knowledge of blacks otherwise. The stereotypical portrayals of blacks as represented in these and the thousands of other similar artifacts have defined blacks in the minds of many and have left an indelible mark. They have bombarded all our senses and have provided those with an inclination toward believing the worse of blacks to do so via the most pervasive institution in our society--media.
It is important to note the evolution of the use of black characters in the several mediums/ Generally speaking, the first stage might well have covered the period of slavery in which southerners, wishing to present slavery as being redeeming, showed slaves as well-dressed, being involved in leisure-time activities and, even while at work, doing it at such an apparently slow pace that the thought of their being overworked was incredulous. Northerners, on the other hand, especially those with, abolitioni st leanings, were interested in showing the dehumanizing effects and aspects of slavery. Illustrations and folklore originating in such places showed blacks, in slavery, being beaten, grimacing and even being tortured to death. They were shown as being barefoot, ragged, wide-eyed and slack lipped with fear.
A second stage, which ranged roughly from the latter years of the 19th century through the depression years, is characterized by grotesque, "sambo", "pickaninny" characters who were always involved in some sort of high-jinks and usually involving watermelons, chickens or ghosts. In the third stage
we find fairly accurate realistic pictorial representations but always with.
the subject group being involved in menial tasks and speaking what is generally referred to as "negro dialect." Few occassions of blacks as professionals, entrepreneurs, educators and such are to be found during the period extending through the 1940s.
A fourth stage, which began where this display leaves off, would not begin until after the civil rights movement but, by then, the era of seeking to humiliate and keep the negro in his place had ended and we had entered an era of the new stereotypes--pimps, pushers, hookers, snitches, street people, dudes and jive.