Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Destructive Ramifications of Stereotypes as Seen through Janette Faulkner’s Ethnic Notions Sheet Music Collection

“That is the way I now see Jan Faulkner’s collection. I see our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, captured and forced into images they did not devise, doing hard time for all of us.” –Alice Walker

At first sight, Janette Faulkner’s collection of sheet music, each with its own illustrative cover, can be eye-catching and repulsive concomitantly. The colors and art work lure viewers into gawking, but the images, represented by caricatures of African Americans, destroy any attempt to enjoy the collection’s aesthetics. Faulkner at one point felt the same way stating, “Understanding caricature as an art form has enabled me to transcend my early days of anger and revulsion and to reach a level of understanding for the pieces acquired.” Transcending any of the material at first glance might be hard for an individual to do, particularly those whom the stereotypical images target.

The cover of Hogan's ragtime song
"All Coons Look Alike to Me."
Faulkner’s collection at the Amistad Research Center represents over 500 pieces of sheet music, accompanied by lyrics, which date from 1852 to 1978, and includes music from African American and non-African American composers in the genres of ragtime, jazz, classical, and musical theater. One of the most popular songs from Ernest Hogan, titled “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” is in the collection. Hogan, an African American rag time performer, helped develop and create the ragtime genre. There is evidence that the music was also used in black face minstrelsy. Many of the performers on the music covers were dressed in black face and, without a doubt, sung the songs while performing in minstrel shows. The collection reveals America’s painful history of denigrating black personhood in popular culture. The music cannot simply be identified as a mockery of African American culture, but as a deliberate mechanism to undermine Black citizenship and equality in a post-Civil War era.

An autographed cover of "This Dancing
Fool" signed by Stepin-Fetchit
The sheet music was a part of Faulkner’s larger collection, titled Ethnic Notions, which was developed over many years and included thousands of items, each depicting African American stereotypes. The Ethnic Notions Collection was first exhibited at the Berkeley Art Center in 1982 and again in 2000. Faulkner’s collection was so influential in the public sphere that it inspired Marlon Riggs’ 1986 award-winning documentary called Ethnic Notions. The documentary detailed the evolution of stereotypical African American images and their contributions in fueling anti-black prejudice. The art catalogs from both exhibits and the documentary are also housed at the Amistad Research Center, along with the sheet music collection.

Faulkner was a social worker, educator, activist, and noted collector of black memorabilia. It was as an undergraduate student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, during the 1950s that Faulkner began amassing her collection. She was encouraged by Mary Turner, an antique dealer, who introduced her to collecting. It was on a buying tour with Mary that she found a picture post card of a black man with a mouth exaggerated in width, depth, and color. Afterwards, she began collecting similar items which expanded to include pencils, silver spoons, tobacco jars, books, games, toys, candy tins and post cards. Faulkner’s collection can serve as a powerful tool in understanding the development and consequences of these negative images in popular music.

Post by Chianta Dorsey.

Images from the Janette Faulkner Ethnic Notions Sheet Music Collection. May not be reproduced without permission.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Grant Supports Documentation of New Orleans Hiphop

This morning, the Amistad Research Center was pleased to be among the 200+ recipients of grant funding from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Support from the Foundation will aid the Center's efforts to expand the forthcoming New Orleans Hiphop and Bounce Archive, a freely-accessible online collection of audio and video interviews with artists, DJs, producers, record store owners, and others within the hiphop and bounce communities in New Orleans.

The digital archive will be comprised of audiovisual interviews currently held at the Center in two related collecitons, the NOLA Hiphop Archive Project Collection and the Where They At Collection.

The NOLA Hiphop Archive was founded by Holly Hobbs in 2012. Thus far, the NOLA Hiphop Archive has conducted over 30 videotaped interviews with hiphop and bounce artists and pioneers in the city, including Mannie Fresh, Mystikal, Partners N Crime, Dee-1, Ricky B, DJ Raj Smoove, Nesby Phips, Nicky da B; Rusty Lazer, Queen Blackkold Madina (Academy Award-winning rapper & star of the documentary Trouble the Water) and more. A sample of these interviews can be viewed below.

The accompanying Where They At collection was begun in 2008 by photographer Aubrey Edwards and journalist Alison Fensterstock, with the assistance of a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation. It collected over 50 photographic portraits and audio interviews with New Orleans rappers, DJs, producers, photographers, label owners, promoters, record store personnel, journalists and other parties involved in the New Orleans hip-hop and bounce scene from the late 1980s through Hurricane Katrina, as well as ephemera including original fliers, posters, vintage photographs and more. In a multimedia exhibition form, the collection toured extensively. It currently lives in online form at

Richard W. English Papers Document the "Black Panthers" of World War II

Richard W. English
The Amistad Research Center is pleased to announce the opening of the Richard W. English Papers, which date from 1942 to 1984. Richard Walter English was a decorated school teacher, administrator, and soldier who served in Germany under the 761st Tank Battalion, an all-Black combat unit during World War II. The bulk of his collection highlights his service as a member of the 761st, known as the “Black Panthers” and the first African-American armored unit to enter combat during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The men of the 761st proved their courage and tenacity during the 183 days of continual fighting.

The 761st Tank Battalion was activated on April 1, 1942, at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, and trained for two years at Camp Hood in Texas. They were deployed to Europe on October 10, 1944, landing on Omaha Beach in France. The 761st was attached to the XII Corps 26th Infantry Division as part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. The battalion, one of the first American units to meet up with Soviet forces in Austria, also saw action on the front in France, Belgium, and Germany. The Black Panthers captured over 30 towns and liberated several concentration camps.

Richard Walter English was born on June 9, 1909, in El Paso, Texas. In 1926, English completed his high school education at McDonough 35 public high school in New Orleans. He went on to study chemistry at Dillard University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1930, before began his tenure as a teacher in the Orleans Parish public school system in 1932. He enlisted in the United States Army on October 28, 1942, graduating later in that year from the Army’s engineering school and becoming a member of the 761st Tank Battalion.

In 1947, English received a promotion from Warrant Officer to the rank of Major, a position he held until he retired from the army on April 18, 1950.  Over the course of his eight years of service, English accumulated a number of awards and citations, including a Purple Heart medallion, five battle stars, and six other medals for his combat service. Following his release from military duty in 1950, English emerged as a leading educator in New Orleans as both a teacher and principal in the New Orleans public school system. Twenty-eight years after his retirement from the armed forces, English, along with the rest of the 761st Battalion, finally received the Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance and displays of courage from President Jimmy Carter after six previous presidents would not acknowledge the battalion and its accomplishments.
Detail of a panoramic photograph of the 761st Tank Battalion, circa 1942.
The papers of Richard W. English contains correspondence and ephemera, military records, and photographs related to his service in the 761st Tank Battalion during World War II, his post-war service in Germany (1945-1950), and his work as a teacher and administrator in the public schools of New Orleans, Louisiana (1955-1970).

The archival arrangement and preservation of the Richard W. English papers was completed with the assistance of Lusher Charter School student intern, Nicholas Albert, and funding assistance from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. For more information about Richard Walter English and his wartime service, the finding aid to his papers can be found in Amistad's online finding aid database.

Posted by Laura Thomson

(Images from the Richard W. English papers. May not be reproduced without permission.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Olivia Ward Bush-Banks and the Dualism of Black and Native American Identity

 The birth of the African American literary condition occurred in 1773 with the publication of Phyllis Wheatley’s book of poetry and has evolved into a thriving apparatus within American literature ever since. Olivia Ward Bush-Banks is amongst this tradition and the presence of her literary work offers a view into the complex identities of Americans—Black, Native American, and a woman, Bush-Banks had plenty to pull from when she began her writing career at the turn of the 20th century.  
The papers of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks consist of her published and unpublished fiction, and display her role as a teacher, poet, playwright, socialite, historian, and activist. The hand script and typescript materials include drafts and final copies of her work. Several of the poems, plays, and stories were subsequently published in The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks as part of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Amistad also holds a copy of this book. Press clippings include notice of artistic social gatherings at her home in New York City, brief biographical sketches, and course outlines for her lectures on public speaking, English, and the dramatic arts. 
Bush-Banks on left with
Montauk relative Emma D. King
on right at Indian Meeting.
Sag Harbor, New York, 1931

Bush-Banks was born in Sag Harbor, New York, to Abraham and Eliza Draper Ward. She was raised by her aunt, Maria Draper, after her mother’s death in 1869. She married Frank Bush in 1889 but the marriage had ended by 1895 and Bush-Banks was forced to become the sole provider for her two children. She took menial jobs to survive and her hardships inspired her writings, which culminated in the 1899 publication of her first volume of poetry titled, Original Poems. She shelved her literary ambitions for years afterwards, placing the financial security of her family above her burgeoning writing career. She remarried a Pullman porter, Anthony Banks, and spent the remainder of her life traveling between her residences in Chicago and New York where she became immersed in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s.
A letter from Carter G. Woodson to
 Bush-Banks complimenting her poems
 and offering to publish them
in the Journal of Negro History.

Bush-Banks had Montauk ancestry through both of her parents and she maintained a linkage to these roots by attending pow-wows and other native gatherings. She even served as the Montauk tribal historian. Glimmers of her Native identity are present in an unfinished play, titled Indian Trails, where some of the names and functions of the characters are rooted in Algonquian social customs and material culture.  In Scene 1: Act 1, two Native American characters, Quashawan and Wantoconomese, discuss the impending presence of white men in their territory. It reads: 

“Wantoconomese will speak the truth to Quashawan. 
His heart is heavy. The trail along the teepees is this 
with the footprints of the paleface. Ere the rising of another moon,
trouble comes to Montauk.” 

Bush-Banks never allowed her Montauk ancestry to overshadow her identity as an African American or her African roots. Themes related to the diminished status of African Americans are mentioned in her work. In Prologue to Shadows, she offers an interpretation of the achievements of early African civilization. It begins:

"Nolanda, the African Maiden, does the jungle dance
and is conscious of the wild ecstasy of jungle rhythm. 
Later, the urgent primal call within her, seems to forecast
the centuries of bondage, under the pitiless
white light of advanced civilization,
to be fraught with untold suffering for her people."

In the writings above, none of the characters know for certain how their contact with Europeans will change the economic, political and spatial expansion of America. Ironically, Bush-Banks starts the dialogue in both writings with a foreboding mood of the subjugation that Africans and Native Americans will experience in the name of Western progression. The subsequent forced bondage of Africans and the near extinction of Native peoples serve as the price for the “white light of advanced civilization.” The dual identity of Bush-Banks, represented by her Native American and African heritage, allowed her to articulate and draw similarities to the displacement and exploitation of both groups. Many published and unpublished works, such as Indian Trails and Prologue to Shadows, serve as a window into the experiences of a multi-ethnic woman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Post by Chianta Dorsey

Images and information from Olivia Ward Bush-Banks papers and The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks. May not be reproduced without permission.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Exhibition Reveals the Role of Fannie Lou Hamer and Clarie Collins Harvey in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement

Fannie Lou Hamer and Clarie Collins Harvey, two extraordinary women from two different strata of society, used their leadership and influence to guide the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Harvey, a wealthy and highly-educated businesswoman and Hamer, a determined sharecropper and frontline activist, led Mississippians on a path of economic, social and political equality. 

Poster of Fannie Lou Hamer
for community center event, circa 1968.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Amistad Research Center is proud to announce its exhibition “Empowered Women: Fannie Lou Hamer, Clarie Collins Harvey and the Mississippi Freedom Movement” currently on display now through December 19, 2014. This exhibition highlights the participation of women in the Civil Rights Movement by displaying the papers of Fannie Lou Hamer and Clarie Collins Harvey. By viewing and analyzing the correspondence, photographs, political ephemera, and organizational documents of Hamer and Harvey, we can understand the class, gender, and racial dynamics that influenced the trajectories of their activism. 

Documents in Hamer papers include records of the Freedom Farm Corporation (FFC), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), and the Delta Ministry. Documents in the Harvey papers include records of Womanpower Unlimited, Church Women United, and the Mississippi Small Business Development Center.

Portrait of Clarie Collins Harvey at desk,
circa 1968.
Documents from the Hamer and Harvey collections are also included in Amistad’s digital collection entitled “Print Culture and the Civil Rights Movement, 1950-1980,” hosted by the Louisiana Digital library. There are other archival institutions celebrating the 50th year milestones of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by publicizing their collections. The Wisconsin Historical Society is hosting the Freedom Summer Digital Collection, an online database of photographs and manuscripts documenting the activities of Freedom Summer activists, and the Library of Congress is hosting their online exhibit titled “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.”

Amistad invites the public to view the Hamer and Harvey materials on display in our exhibition gallery. Information on the current exhibit and our upcoming exhibits can be found on our website.

Post by Chianta Dorsey

Images from the Fannie Lou Hamer and Clarie Collins Harvey Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Birth of the Negro Almanac and the Evolution of Written Resources on African American History

The Negro Almanac Collection represents the burgeoning efforts of historians to document African American achievement over the course of America’s 400+ year existence. The Negro Almanac Collection consists of 950 photographs compiled by Harry A. Ploski for his reference work titled The Negro Almanac. The photographs depict some of the most well-known African Americans in the realms of sports, the arts, music, politics, the sciences, education, business, civil rights, and entertainment. They also depict African Americans who participated in historic events such as the Civil War, WWI, the Vietnam War, and the Westward Expansion. The collection brings some of the most iconic photos of African Americans under one collection to be consulted.

A 19th century Black family.
 The Negro Almanac became an important ready reference book for public libraries and has gone through nine editions since its first publication in 1967. Ploski received assistance in completing the book from his co-author, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown. After subsequent editions of the book were published, its name eventually changed to the African American Almanac in 1989, replacing the term Negro because it had become an outdated identifier for Black Americans. The topics covered in the Almanac have also changed since its 1967 initial publication to include historical events, people, places and ideologies that reflect the development of contemporary Black America.
Slaves on a plantation.

The photos in the Negro Almanac Collection highlight Ploski’s attempt to provide a visual representation of the people and movements discussed in his book. Many of the photographs can be attributed to news agencies such as the Associated Press and United Press International. The hand drawn pictorials documenting Black participation in the anti-slavery movement are largely from Harper’s Weekly. The images also have an international scope, documenting the peoples, activities and leaders of African countries such as Liberia, Nigeria, Algeria, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa and Ethiopia. The Negro Almanac Collection can be a useful source of historical images for K-12 education on African American history.

Post by Chianta Dorsey.

Images from the Negro Almanac Collection. May not be reproduced without permission.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers Showcase Blacks in Antebellum America

The Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers serve as a great introduction into the lives of African Americans during the antebellum period in America. The papers reference several generations of the Ruffin family beginning with Nancy Lewis and George W. Ruffin, who were both antebellum free blacks in Richmond, Virginia. The collection includes correspondence between various members of the Heslip-Ruffin Family, as well as letters from famed abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The family’s achievements are documented through legal documents, biographical data, news clippings, printed ephemera, and photographs. Other African Americans that achieved notoriety are highlighted in the papers, as well.

Carte-de-visite of
Nancy Lewis Ruffin
George W. Ruffin worked as a barber and, with his wife Nancy Lewis Ruffin, believed in the value of education so strongly that Nancy and the children left Virginia when legislation prohibited African Americans from learning to read. Nancy moved to Boston where she became a seller of fruit and fish while George continued to financially support the family from Virginia. Their sacrifices set the foundation for subsequent success among their children and grandchildren, including their son, George L. Ruffin, who became the first Black to graduate from Harvard Law School (1869) and the first Black to be elected to a judgeship in Massachusetts (1883), and their granddaughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, who became a teacher after attending Boston Teachers College and Boston University.

The earliest correspondence between Nancy Lewis Ruffin and her husband George W. Ruffin is from the 1850s. Many of the letters in the collection were written to their son, George L. Ruffin, and the majority of the material in the family papers concerns his life and career. Other noteworthy documents are the free papers of George L.; photos of Paul Robeson’s family, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois; and 19th century receipts for food, furniture and medical treatments.

Carte-de-visite of
George W. Ruffin
The Heslip and Ruffin families were active African American leaders in early 20th century social and political organizations such as the Women’s Era Club, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). George L. Ruffin and his wife Josephine were active in elite African American social circles and befriended abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. George L. Ruffin even wrote the introduction to the 1881 edition of Douglass’ third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Josephine served as one of the founding members of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, founded the Women’s Era, a monthly magazine dedicated to African American women’s issues, and was editor in chief of the African American weekly newspaper “The Boston Courant.” Ultimately, The Heslip and Ruffin Family Papers serve as a rich source of a free Black antebellum family and their subsequent generations.

Posted by Chianta Dorsey

Images from the Heslip-Ruffin Family Papers. May not be reproduced without permission.