- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

SUFFOLK, Va. — Therbia Parker was offended when he saw the signs for sale in a Petersburg shop. Two read simply but powerfully, "Whites only" and "Colored Only — No Whites Allowed." A third said "Restrooms — White — Colored," and had arrows pointing in opposite directions.
Driving home to Suffolk, Mr. Parker thought back to a time when such signs were commonplace.
"It occurred to me that my ancestors probably had to hang those signs and keep them dusted," Mr. Parker said. "The signs are part of history, and, like it or not, you can't change history but you need to remember it."
A few days later Mr. Parker mailed a check to the Petersburg shop and added the signs to his collection of black memorabilia.
Mr. Parker, 52, a Suffolk native, is a former computer technology executive who left the stressful New York business world to return to his hometown. He runs his own general contracting business, but says his "real calling" is as a historian.
Recently, Mr. Parker and his wife, Marva, a school teacher, formed Listen to the Drumbeat Productions — an enterprise dedicated to teaching black cultural history through memorabilia.
In addition to exhibits and lectures, the Parkers also offer a Black Sunday School, a program that uses biblical terms and black memorabilia to teach history.
Black memorabilia generally include any item relating to the experiences of blacks in America. They are also, Mr. Parker said, the art and history of how black people were perceived as caricatures or objects, sometimes less than human.
Interest in black Americana has grown nationally in the past five to seven years, said Charles Bethea, director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond.
"It is an uncharted area of African-American history that has not received full recognition yet," Mr. Bethea said. "A lot of people don't realize that the collectibles are out there and you can still find a true gem every once in a while."
Mr. Bethea views collections like Mr. Parker's as valuable in preserving black history as part of American history.
Though some of his collectibles could be considered offensive, Mr. Parker believes that no one has the right to deny the telling of history as it really was.
A Jan. 9, 1823 edition of the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, advertises household items for sale: wardrobes, washstands, a liquor cabinet, and 24 Negroes. Classified ads solicited information on runaway slaves.
An early 1900s advertising placard of a smiling black face promoted "Darkie Toothpaste."
A cardboard figure of a black man in a top hat and suit was designed with a slot in its mouth to "smoke" small firecrackers. The firecrackers were wrapped in a separate packet printed with cartoon-type black figures.
Mr. Parker paid $12 for "Smokin' Joe" in June and recently verified its value between $75 and $100.
Black memorabilia are sought by collectors who appreciate its increasing value. Mr. Parker remembers one white woman who followed him around a shop, hoping he would set down an old photo of a black woman surrounded by a family of white children.
"She finally told me that she wanted it for her Mammy collection," he said.
Aunt Jemima items, Mammy dolls, old Cream of Wheat advertising, anything relating to Martin Luther King and any black memorabilia marked "Made in Occupied Japan" are among the hottest collectibles.
Mr. Parker values his collection at more than $100,000 but says it's worth even more for its educational value. He says its ability to open a window into the past has more impact than any history book.
The memorabilia, mostly advertising, were geared to "making whites feel superior and blacks feel inferior," Mr. Parker said. "Blacks, educated and not educated, grew up with this inferior, slave mentality.
"While older folks can remember, there is a whole generation out there, in their 20s and 30s, who never knew these things existed."
Positive images also figure in Mr. Parker's collection. He's collecting every Life magazine cover that focuses on a black individual, and has a large collection of old portraits of people he has no way to identify.

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