Collectibles Used to Educate African-American Items a Part of History

By Stepzinski, Teresa | The Florida Times Union, April 21, 1996 | Go to article overview

Collectibles Used to Educate African-American Items a Part of History


Stepzinski, Teresa, The Florida Times Union


Denise Fields looks at a tarnished slave anklet and sees more

than an ugly shackle of oppression. The crude metal also is a

symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity,

prejudice and unspeakable hardships.

Fields, a McIntosh County school social worker, has more than

1,000 African artifacts and African-American collectibles

including many dating back to the Civil War-era in a collection

that has been displayed across the South.

The brass slave anklet is one of oldest pieces in Fields'

collection that also includes an African dowry belt, a tribal

ring and a doll made by a slave -- all made in the early 1800s

-- as well as an anti-slavery token minted by abolitionists in

1832.

Fields uses the artifacts and collectibles to educate children

and adults about African-American culture and the way things

used to be for blacks in America, she said.

"My desire with the collection is to challenge individuals not

to repeat the mistakes of the past: the intolerance and

prejudice. I want to challenge them and motivate them to make

their own positive contributions to society," Fields said.

She uses an 1800s wrought-iron hitching statue of a black

jockey to illustrate the resourcefulness and ingenuity of those

helping slaves along the Underground Railroad. The railroad was

a clandestine system set up by slavery opponents to help

fugitive slaves escape from the South to northern free states

and Canada.

"If the lantern was lit in his hand or there was a bright

ribbon tied around his neck, that was a signal that the house

was a safe place for runaway slaves to rest," Fields said.

Fields has shown her collection at schools, museums and

community centers in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia,

including Emory University, Morehouse College and Spelman

College.

A handmade doll dating back to the Civil War-era is typical of

the kind often made by slaves for the children of their master,

Fields said.

"It was common for a black person to make dolls or other toys

for the white children of the house," said Fields, noting that

generally it was less common for black children of that time to

have such toys.

Although she hasn't examined Fields' material, Linda King,

director of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society Museum of

Coastal History on St. Simons Island, said private collectors

such as Fields are important. They help provide a community

service by sharing their items and knowledge with children and

others.

"There are so few early African and African-American artifacts

left in existence," King said. "It was common for slave

artifacts to be discarded and African-American memorabilia to be

destroyed in the past."

Fields' array also includes a music box, metal coin banks, post

cards, sheet music, spice jars, cookie jars, figurines, jewelry,

money minted by AfricanAmericans, books and advertising signs

depicting blacks.

Some of Fields' pieces are novelty items or souvenirs depicting

derogatory stereotypes of African-Americans. One of her first

exhibitions, at a Texas military base, spurred protest by

several African-American officers who wanted the items removed

from the exhibit, Fields said.

Fields refused.

"It's a part of our history, both for blacks and whites. Not

all of our history is pretty but it is still part of our

heritage and we cannot ignore it," she said.

Fields said the controversial items are included because it is

part of presenting an accurate historical account about the way

African-Americans were treated in the past. …

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