You just never know where your research will take you.
Searching for information on a surviving member of the the all-black 6888th Battalion spotlighted in Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII, I discovered the debate surrounding a growing market for black memorabilia.
I've never actually seen one of the hitching post figures of a cartoonish young black boy with exaggerated features, which I thought was now universally considered racist. But I've learned a lot about racism in America in the last couple years and maybe shouldn't have been surprised by the Little Black Sambo cookie jars and Mamie salt and pepper shakers being sold on E-bay.
I also didn't expect to find them while researching Fran McClendon, a 101-year-old African American Veteran of WWII.
In late summer of 1943, the Allies won important victories in Italy and New Guinea, and the Nazis and Japanese were retreating.
But the war was far from over and the U.S. Army needed more manpower. Congress voted to raise the status of women in the army from supplemental support to official members of the military.
All over the country, the Women's Army Corps recruited volunteers, telling women they could "free a man to fight" and help win the war.
Fran McClendon went with a group of girl friends to talk with a recruiter and they all decided to enlist. A year later, Fran was assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. It would be the only unit of black women deployed overseas during the war.
Fran would end up serving 26 years in the military, first the army, then the air force, posted Korea and Vietnam, and retiring at the rank Major.
But it was her WWII assignment in Birmingham, England, where she developed an appreciation for fine crystal and china. The Black WACs' job in England was to sort a huge backlog of mail and re-direct it to soldiers in the field. They worked in shifts around the clock because the packages and letters were crucial to troop morale.
But Fran and the others did have days off to explore the town. Birmingham citizens welcomed the WACs and invited them to tea in their homes and out to restaurants. Crystal and china were everywhere. Fran saw it in shop windows at the weekend markets and soon gained a love of fine craftsmanship.
Many years later, after her military career, Fran went into the antique business. “I love the study of the glass industry and china industry,” she told a reporter recently. Yes, recently. To this day, she runs an antique shop, the Glass Urn in Mesa, AZ, where she deals mostly in American crystal, but has some glassware from Ireland, Sweden and Germany.
Over the years, the Glass Urn has carried a large variety of antiques, occasionally items made in the image of a black person.
These types of collectibles, almost always demeaning, have been manufactured in America since the beginning of the slave trade and remained common and popular up through the 1950s.
At times, Fran McClendon has questioned whether to sell certain items of black memorabilia, but she considers them art. “My husband and I loved art and in art you find all kinds of things."
Where Fran sees art, some see historical artifacts that can be educational, and other find these black collectibles racist and offensive.
As an African-American history professor, Donald Guillory, has mixed feelings about black memorabilia. The items can spark conversation about the negative portrayal of blacks, which might be a teachable moment.
“If it’s anything other than learning the context or teaching about it, why would you want something that offensive, or that overtly offensive, in your home?” He concludes.
What I found startling when I happened upon this topic, is the burgeoning popularity of black memorabilia, so much so, that replicas are now being manufactured in China. A documentary on the topic debuted earlier this month on PBS. Read about it here... Or watch the one-hour documentary Black Memorabilia here...
As for Fran McClendon, after forty-years of selling antiques, she's preparing to retire.
“I’m downsizing,” she said. “I want to do things and I know I can’t hold on to everything.”
I hope she holds on to at least one set of glassware that reminds her of Birmingham, England, and her time in the Women's Army Corps.
For further interest, there's a book that goes into some depth about how these racist depictions of blacks continued to be reinvented over the decades of American history. Mamie and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Sterotyping.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories from history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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