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
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
"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
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,
"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
"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
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.
"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. …