Release Date: February 15, 2001
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A collection of memorabilia and autographs commemorating African-American history is on display in the University at Buffalo's Lockwood Library in celebration of Black History Month.
Titled "They, Too, Had a Dream," the exhibit includes a typewritten signed manuscript excerpt of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," a signature and photo of Frederick Douglass, an autographed photo of deceased poet Gwendolyn Brooks and an autograph of 1920s entertainer Josephine Baker, who was shunned by United States audiences until earning fame in Paris as "le jazz hot."
Compiled by Ron Weekes, an autograph collector and dealer for 40 years and member of the Center for the Arts staff at UB, the exhibit is on display through Feb. 28 near the circulation desk on the main level of Lockwood Library on the UB North (Amherst) Campus.
Weekes was given his first autograph at the age of 12 by the first Asian-American elected to political office on the West Coast. A year later, he was given John F. Kennedy's autograph, and Weekes was hooked.
He eventually found his collecting niche in African-American history, and mounts a Black History Month exhibit each year at UB. Weekes chooses materials from his private stash, but the selection process, he says, is a struggle each year due to the enormity of his collection -- he has amassed several hundred items related to African-American history.
This year's assortment showcases pop culture alongside political clout -- from RuPaul on a MAC cosmetics flier to a signed postal first-day cover of Coretta Scott King, honoring the first-day issue of a Martin Luther King, Jr., postal stamp.
It also includes a signed postal first-day cover and photograph of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Jordan served from 1972-79, gave keynote speeches at the 1976 and 1992 Democratic conventions and spoke at President Richard Nixon's impeachment. She battled adversity
throughout her life, Weekes said, from her upbringing in Harlem's slums, to her 25-year relationship with a woman, to her struggle with multiple sclerosis, leukemia and diabetes. "Look at our lives compared to…Barbara Jordan," said Weekes, pointing to a photograph of Jordan in her wheelchair that is part of Lockwood exhibit. "We don't know adversity."
His personal collection, Weekes says, is guided by a sense of duty in preserving history.
"It's one thing to read about history from a theoretical perspective," he said. "It's quite another experience to actually see a handwritten letter of, say, Booker T. Washington discussing his opus, 'Up from Slavery.' You're touching history.
"It's just an area of…history that interests me, and strikes a chord within me," Weekes explains. "Maybe I've always been a champion of the disenfranchised because I identify with them personally on some level. I've overcome a lot of odds in my own life."
In the U.S., autograph collecting grew in popularity in the mid-1800s, Weekes said. Today, ephemera can include autographs, photographs, letters, any kind of historical paper, such as advertising broadsides.
A collector for 20 years before trying his hand at the business by founding Weekes Autographs, Weekes, with nearly 5,000 autographs in his business inventory, considers himself "small time" in a pool of a few hundred dealers worldwide and 500,000 collectors -- up from 15,000 a few decades ago.
As temporary custodian of many of these items -- most of which are sold into private collections -- Weekes has held in his hands documents from as early as the 1500s -- letters written by Renaissance-era popes -- and first-edition Ernest Hemingway novels with lengthy inscriptions.
But where collecting is concerned, what is considered significant varies with taste and time. "We're a visually focused society," comments Weekes. "Signed photos are nice for the visual connection, but they're not nearly as important as a fully handwritten letter or historical document." There are, he adds, exceptions to the rule. For example, a signed photograph of Greta Garbo can go for as much as $10,000 to $15,000.
Weekes is eager to lure the community into Lockwood Library with his Black History Month exhibit, where he says he hopes arising curiosities can be satisfied. "If we can get them in by showing them this exhibit, maybe they'll go to the library shelf and check out a book on Gwendolyn Brooks, or on Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black ambassador," he said.
Overcoming a fear of the unknown -- what Weekes describes as taking away the power people give to fear through discrimination or not caring to know about something outside personal experience -- is something he has been able to do through collecting and display of black history material, and is something he hopes others will be able to do through viewing his exhibit.
"The more you open up…get to really know something for its true essence…what you uncover may be very beautiful," he said.