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Eugene Robinson’s Collection of African American History and Art Goes to Auction

The Please Remember collection includes 17th-century slave shackles, Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, and an Obama poster.

Chest of Shackles, West Africa, 17th-18th century (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)

The historical collection of African American art and artifacts by renowned columnist and media personality Eugene Robinson and his wife, artist Avis Collins Robinson, is headed for the auction block. Thirty years in the making, Please Remember comprises dozens of objects — from 17th-century slave shackles to a copy of Frederick Douglass’ groundbreaking newspaper to an Obama poster. On February 1, Skinner Auctioneers will start online bidding for items in this unique assemblage of artifacts. The public auction will take place on February 9 in Boston.

Framed bill of sale for a “Negro girl Mary” (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)

The collection began as a dive into the Robinsons’ family histories 30 years ago, eventually morphing into a more comprehensive set of objects. “It started out not as a collection, but as stuff,” Eugene Robinson told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. “It gradually became focused on African American history. Talking to relatives and learning personal histories led to the larger history.”

Although it’s hard to have “favorites” among artifacts that represent a tragic history, Robinson said one that always sticks out in his mind is a document for the sale of a young girl. “Repellant objects are important. They’re a reminder of where we were, of our recent past, where we must never go again,” he said. “These are people’s lives. That brings it home to me. We talk about slavery as a historical fact, but we have to think about the individual.” But the larger picture is equally important. “The class of objects points out the extent to which slavery provided a foundation for the US. It wasn’t just a Southern phenomenon. The textile mills in Massachusetts, for example, where did that cotton come from? The South.”

Photos of entertainers in blackface (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)

The Robinsons are keeping the family artifacts, but they feel it’s time to let go of a good portion of their collection. “It was a phase in life when we were acquiring things, and it became quite a large collection, but it’s not fair to our sons, the burden of figuring out what to do with it,” Robinson explained. “We’ve enjoyed owning the objects and documents, but they belong more to the world.” Robinson hopes museums will buy at least some of the objects. “You have to take satisfaction from having saved some of these items from destruction and from being lost in history. That’s what’s most important.”

Please Remember will open for online bidding at skinnerinc.com on February 1. On February 9, Skinner Auctioneers will host a public auction at its headquarters in Boston (63 Park Plaza), with a portion of the proceeds donated to an organization dedicated to the preservation of African American history.

Eugene Robinson will speak at Skinner (63 Park Plaza) on February 7 at 5:30 pm.

Unframed tintype of Booker T. Washington dressed in a three-piece suit (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Frederick Douglass’ Paper, December 18, 1851, framed (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Folk art oil on board of President Lincoln and a freed slave, 20th century (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Elizabeth Catlett, “Negro es Bello.” Lithograph on paper, artist proof III, signed lower right, unframed (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Collection of The Black Panther: Black Community News publication (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Calligraphic broadside of the Emancipation Proclamation with highlighted portions depicting Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by cartouches representing the states surmounted by an eagle (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
Cased tintype of an African American young lady reading a book (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
W. S. Reed, “The Five Jolly Darkies Way Down in Old Virginia,” c. 1880-1900. Lithographed paper on wood crank toy (image courtesy Skinner Auctioneers)
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