HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Mementos of white bigotry from yesteryear--Little Black Sambo dolls, "Colored Only" signs, figurines of grinning, watermelon-eating urchins--are becoming hot collectors' items among American blacks who once scorned them as hated symbols of humiliation.
The booming market for "black collectibles" has attracted such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who reportedly collects African slave chains and shackles.
"Black people buy these items for the very same reason that Jewish people research the Holocaust," says Jeanette B. Carson, a prominent figure in the black-memorabilia business. "The black experience, during and after slavery, was a Holocaust we must never forget."
Carson, 56, a retired State Department specialist in African affairs, began collecting black artifacts about seven years ago. The 600 items that fill her home near Washington range from quilted dolls hand-sewn by former slaves to a mirrored mahogany hat rack, valued at $800 to $900, which prize fighter Joe Louis once kept in his dressing room.
Carson's home-based firm, Ethnic Treasures Inc., sponsors dealer shows and auctions from New York to Atlanta. She also publishes "Black Ethnic Collectibles," a bimonthly magazine with 8,000 subscribers, and heads the National Assn. of Black Memorabilia Collectors, with more than 500 members nationwide.
She says the business has grown from about 50 dealers in 1983 to more than 500 this year, with an estimated $500,000 in annual sales. The number of collectors--like dealers, once mostly white but now predominantly black--has soared from about 10,000 to more than 35,000 in the past six years.
Her personal collection includes 100 hand-fashioned dolls and other objects presenting a positive image of blacks, including commemorative stamps and coins, historical photographs and newspapers, and record albums, paintings and sculptures by black artists.
No less valuable, she says, are the racist artifacts that older black customers find highly offensive. Like souvenir place mats from a 1940s chain of restaurants in the Western states called "Coon Chicken Inns," whose logo was a winking, smiling black face. Or the framed sign reading "Colored Seated in Rear," dating from 1929. Or the original 1897 sheet music for a Negro-dialect song titled "Ma Curly-Heady Babby."
Or the yellowed postcards with cartoons of wide-eyed, pigtailed black children--they were called "pickaninnies" in those days--engaged in such pursuits as riding mules, picking cotton, sitting on a toilet seat or tugging at the tails of Florida alligators.
"They all tell a story," Carson says. "They are important because they document our history, both the positive and the negative. It is particularly important to pass them along to young people, so they know where they came from and where they are going."
Carson said there was a time when older blacks, including her parents, destroyed Aunt Jemima cookie jars and Amos 'n' Andy toys as painful reminders of racial stereotypes created for the amusement of whites.
But she suggests that popular interest in collecting and preserving black memorabilia has increased with the rise of a younger generation.