From abolition to revolution: On Oct. 19, Heritage Auctions
will present an event spanning centuries' worth of Black American history, ranging from Samuel Wood's 1807 antislavery tract The Mirror of Misery; or Tyranny Exposed and the third edition of 1845's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slaveto a 1950 letter written and signed by Malcolm X while in the Norfolk Prison Colony, where he joined its legendary debate society and discovered the Nation of Islam.
Here, in a single auction, is the first edition of 1773's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by the enslaved Phillis Wheatley, a tintype studio portrait of a Black Union officer and a screen-printed poster celebrating the 27th birthday of Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton. The breadth of this auction is extraordinary, especially as it pays special attention to Black American life through the gaze of its poets, authors, activists and revolutionaries the men and women who fought for liberation and demanded justice.
"There are more than 150 items in this auction, and combined, they tell the unembroidered story of the Black American experience," says Sandra Palomino, Director of Historical Manuscripts. "These rare historical artifacts, celebrated literary works and other museum-worthy pieces trace a path from the dark days of slavery to the fight for civil rights and, in the process, honor the brave souls who fought for freedom for themselves, their friends, their families and the multitudes whose names they would never know."
Among the centerpieces of this historic assemblage, much of which comes from a single collector, is an autographed and inscribed copy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Stride Toward Freedom, his memoir of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. This historic copy is not only signed by King but inscribed to his friend and mentor Asa Philip Randolph the man who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation and chaired the 1963 March on Washington.
"When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, 'There lived a race of people a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization."
King delivered those words on Dec. 5, 1955, to some 5,000 witnesses at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., only four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The Montgomery Bus Boycott speech, as it would come to be known, has been reprinted and reiterated countless times; as the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute notes, "he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights." King's account of that period remains one of the civil rights movement's most essential texts.
But this copy is among the most historic. Not only does it contain Randolph's annotations throughout, but it bears King's message to his mentor and the man he called "truly the Dean of Negro leaders." King wrote: "To my dear friend A. Philip Randolph. In appreciation of the standards of loyalty, honesty, non-violence, and the will to endure that you have held before all people in the struggle for freedom, justice, and democracy, Martin."
Here, too, is a historic, powerful triptych of placards tied to both the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 and King's funeral that same year. The "I Am A Man" poster was first carried by participants in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike; the "Union Justice Now!" poster followed shortly after and could be seen when King appeared at an April 3 rally for Black sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis, where he famously proclaimed, "I've been to the mountaintop
I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Less than 24 hours later, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
On April 8, the day before King's funeral, Coretta Scott King led what the National Portrait Gallery calls a "massive, peaceful march in Memphis that honored her husband's memory by supporting the striking sanitation workers whose cause had drawn King to that city." Mourners carried the two signs made for the sanitation workers' strike and a third, newly minted placard demanding America "HONOR KING: END RACISM!"
Randolph, too, is represented in this auction by a pair of voting-rights posters made circa 1971 for the A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund for Voting Rights. One features a photo from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that reads, "Somebody Paid the Price for Your Right Register / Vote." Another demands: "Make it Real Register / Vote." As timeless as tomorrow.
The letters from Malcolm X are no less historic than King's memoir, as each offers a glimpse into his mind during two very different yet equally important periods of his life.
One dates from March 12, 1950, during his stint at the Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where the man born Malcolm Little was serving time for a burglary conviction. While behind bars, Malcolm discovered the Nation of Islam and devoured the prison's library; as he later wrote in his autobiography, a proof copy of which is also in this auction, "Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life."
The 1950 letter, written to Raymond Sharrieff, the Supreme Captain of the Fruit of Islam and the son-in-law of Elijah Muhammad, features one of the earliest uses of his new moniker: Malcolm X. And in that potent missive, he writes, "Yes, the light teaches the Blacker a man is the Holier he is inside ... When the Light fully shines, I pray Allah will not put the sword in my hand, for I don't believe I could be merciful to the devils."
The second letter, typed this time, is dated Jan. 13, 1958, and here he announces to Elijah Muhammad his intention to marry Betty Shabazz, who is never mentioned by name. Malcolm writes to his friend and mentor, "So I pray ALLAH I'm making the right move, that I'll prove as worthy married to serve the nation as I have strived to do while yet single."
This event also features several works by a writer no less potent and significant than Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X: Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped from her home in West Africa when she was 7 years old and, in August 1761, sold to prominent Boston tailor John Wheatley. The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read and write, and as the Poetry Foundation notes, "soon she was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer."
By the time she was 14 Phillis was writing poetry, some of which was published in newspapers and as broadsides. In 1772 Phillis sent one of her pieces Heaven the Residence of the Saints: A Sermon Occasioned by the Sudden and Much Lamented Death of the Rev. George Whitefield, which is included in this auction to Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess agreed to finance the publication of Phillis' poems by London printer Archibald Bell; hence the dedication inside this first edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published in September 1773 and reviewed in numerous London magazines.
As Wake Forest University's ZSR Library notes in its thorough history of Wheatley's collection, "Reviewers invariably remarked on the unusual circumstance of an African slave writing serious literature, and several specifically pointed out the implications for the slavery debate."
Fifteen years later saw the London publication of Mathew Carey's slave ship broadside titled "Plan of an African Ship's lower Deck, with Negroes in the proportion of not quite one to a Ton." As the catalog notes, "The image was so harrowing that it became a symbol for the antislavery movement in the United States and Great Britain." Indeed, this version, published in the United States, includes text from William Elford of the Plymouth Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which reads, in part, "Here is presented in our view, one of the most horrid spectacles a number of human creatures, packed, side by side, almost like herrings in a barrel, and reduced nearly to the state of being buried alive, with just air enough to preserve a degree of life sufficient to make them sensible of all the horror of their situation."
This is the only copy of the American broadside to appear at auction, first appearing in 2011 when it sold for $14,400. Only six copies are listed in the English Short Title Catalog, and no other examples are at auction.
Among the extraordinary rarities in this auction is The Negro in the City, an extensive group of 44 glass slides produced in the 1920s by the Committee on Conservation and Advance for The Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago. Inside the case is a spectacular visual record of the Great Migration from the late 1910s through the early 1920s. Our catalog notes that this collection captures "Black life from sharecropper farms of the South to the schools, churches, and tenements of Chicago, Detroit and other major cities in the Northeast." Here, too, are largely unpublished photographs of churches under construction, including the landmark St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas. This is the only complete set known to survive.
This auction also features some of the best and best-known artwork from the fight for civil rights, among the offerings a poster for Henry A. Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign featuring a young Black student that reads "Jim Crow is His Enemy." From two decades later comes Emory Douglas' poster for the Black Panther Party featuring a mother and child, as well as a 1968 poster that demands "Let Rap Rap!," referring to H. Rap Brown, then the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
And to bring this event into the 21st century, this auction features a 2013 vinyl reissue of N.W.A.'s 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton featuring on its cover a handwritten history by Eric Poppleton, who shot the photo that ranks among the most unforgettable in hip-hop history. Writes Poppleton, "This cover was created 'On The Fly' in a downtown Los Angeles alleyway. The revolver in the image was real and hopefully 'Eazy-E' unloaded it. None of us knew how iconic this album cover would become."