Early Black-Owned Business Ephemera

“Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face!”

Since the establishment of the Printed & Manuscript African Americana sale in 1996, Swann has offered a selection of ephemera from Black-owned businesses, including some of the most established and well-known companies and entrepreneurs to more obscure companies and their owners; each of which have left an important mark on history, establishing a legacy to aspire to. Below Rick Stattler, director of books and manuscripts, shares a selection of material that has been offered through the years.

Paul Cuffe (1759–1817)

Woodcut silhouette of noted African-American captain Paul Cuffe, 1850. Sold in our February 2008 sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana for $3,120.

One of the most successful early Black entrepreneurs in America was Paul Cuffe, a sea captain and shipbuilder from Westport, MA who used some of his wealth (and one of his ships) to help launch the colony of freed slaves in Sierra Leone. While he may not be a household name today, anything relating to his life is eagerly sought by collectors who know his remarkable story. 

Swann has handled a portrait engraving of Cuffe, a bond he signed for his best-known ship in 1807, and in our March 25, 2021 auction a trading account with a neighbor which he signed in 1800.  

Related Reading: Old Diaries Tell the Stories of Overlooked Americans

Paul Cuffe, an invoice drawn up and signed by perhaps the nation’s leading Black merchant, 1800. To be offered in our March 25 sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919)

Report of the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League, 1912. Sold March 2018 in Printed & Manuscript African Americana for $2,125.

Beauty supply mogul Madam C.J. Walker is probably better-known than Cuffe today, as her products remained available within living memory, the brand was recently revived, and she was portrayed by Octavia Spencer in the recent Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker. If you’ve seen that series, you will probably remember the pivotal scene where she storms the stage at a meeting of the National Negro Business League, much to the horror of Booker T. Washington. Did you wonder if that really happened? In 2019 Swann sold the printed minutes of that historic meeting, and yes, it did. Her entire speech is transcribed, starting with “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face!”. 

Madam C.J. Walker, The Walker 1949 Almanac: A Personal Guide to Health, Wealth and Romance, 1948. To be offered in our March 25 sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana. Estimate $500 to $750.

Also passing through Swann in recent years was the circa 1930 Madame C.J. Walker’s Handbook of Beauty, Happiness and Success and (coming up on March 25, 2021) the Walker 1949 Almanac.   

Lesser-Known Black-Owned Businesses

Photograph of the pioneering Black private detectives of the Start Detective Agency in Chicago, IL, circa late 1950s. Sold in our March 2019 sale of Printed & Manuscript African Americana for $1,560.

A business does not need to be large or famous or even successful to attract the interest of scholars and collectors. Making their appearance in recent Swann auctions have been the illustrated business card of an Iowa stockyard contractor, Bruce Payne, circa 1901; a 1950s photo of the hardboiled gumshoes of the Star Detective Agency; and even a pamphlet from the doomed 1970s real estate development Soul City. History can be seen as the accumulation of stories, and these businesses all have stories to tell.

Do you have ephemera from a Black-owned business we should take a look at?

Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.