When I was first hired as a Graduate Assistant in the Special Collections and Archives, I was tasked with reorganizing the Black Emporia: Interpretations and Connections Collection. After many long months, I became quite close with the contents of those twenty-five boxes. Dr. Carol Marshall, Nellie Essex, and Elizabeth Williams created this collection to help share the voices of underrepresented peoples in Emporia. Through their expansive collection they were able to compile stories from the lives of Black Emporians, as well as African Americans throughout the United States. This collection needs to be viewed and heard.
The major strength of the Black Emporia Collection is the storyteller interviews. The photographs of Mary Louise Flowers and Bud Brooks give a face to the people represented in the collection. Both Flowers and Brooks are featured in Black Emporia: The African American Experience Through the Lives of Emporians. The interview tapes literally contain the voices of the storytellers. You can hear their stories from a personal perspective. The Walls Family scrapbook also presents viewers with another tangible artifact that shows how black families in Emporia lived. This particular scrapbook showcases Walls family reunions through newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, etc.
In my display, I didn’t just want to highlight the positive artifacts in the collection. Instead, I wanted to present viewers with a broad spectrum of the experiences of African Americans. Therefore, I took a risk and displayed two Kourier Magazines and two pieces of black memorabilia.
The Kourier Magazines promote views and opinions of a select group of people from that time period, specifically, the Ku Klux Klan. I found these magazines to be particularly intriguing considering our current political climate. A lot of the viewpoints expressed within those pages are echoed in the media today. We cannot ignore what is being said, in the past of present.
The Coon Chicken Inn tumbler represents how blacks were characterized in the past. The Coon-Chicken Inn used the negative image, as seen on the tumbler, on the facade of their restaurant, tire covers, and in advertisements. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought back against this hateful image, which led to a court case. This artifact brings to light the difficulty in combating negative stereotypes and images, especially those of African Americans. Even though the Coon-Chicken Inn was taken to court, the image wasn’t removed until the restaurant closed in the 1940s. Some may have viewed the image as entertaining and lighthearted, but to many people, it was hateful and degrading.
The Nash’s Prepared Mustard Coin Bank Jar follows the same line of thought. The jar represents the face of Joe Louis, the 1937 heavyweight boxing champion. However, the exaggerated features of the jar mock Louis’s accomplishments. The collection of this item, the tumbler, and other black memorabilia allow for the remnants of this time and these thought to be forever preserved and never forgotten. These objects not only represent the voices of the creators, but they breathe life into the voices of those they originally oppressed.
The Black Emporia: Interpretations and Connections Collection allows researchers and viewers to dig into the lives of African Americans in Emporia, Kansas, and the country as a whole. This collection represents families, oppressed peoples, communities, cultures, etc. Many different viewpoints are expressed in these boxes; some are still waiting to be discovered.
By Kari Bingham-Gutierrez, Graduate Assistant: Black Emporia Collection