An Unsung History
Swann Galleries’ sale highlights 300 years of African Americana. By Peggy Carouthers Peggy Carouthers lives in North Carolina and is the editor of custom content at Journalistic Inc.
Founded in 1996, Swann Galleries’ annual Printed and Manuscript African Americana auction is the only one of its kind in the country. Annual sales allow Swann to give in-depth focus to items and pick up those that might escape notice in a general Americana sale, according to Rick Stattler, director of Printed & Manuscript Americana at Swann.
“Having these dedicated auctions has given us a strong reputation as the place for this material,” Stattler said. “They serve a real demand, and are among the most anticipated events on our calendar.”
This year’s auction on March 29 will feature items ranging over 300 years of American history. One of the most powerful lots is a collection of four letters relating to Gabriel Johnson, who was enslaved at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, when the property was leased by his great nephew, John Augustine Washington. The letters, estimated at $12,000-18,000, recount an incident in which Johnson had a run-in with Wasthington’s overseer.
“The overseer attempted to whip him, and Johnson wouldn’t let that happen,” Stattler said. “He was put in Bruin’s Slave Jail in Alexandria, Virginia, for possible sale. Three letters are written by the Washingtons and their overseer, but the final letter was written by Johnson to John Augustine Washington. In it, Johnson expresses regret for the incident and his affection for the Washington family but most pointedly does not apologize and states what he believes to be his rights boldly and firmly.”
In the letter, Johnson wrote, “I pulled it [the whip] out of his hand and jumped off to the opposite side and told him that he could not whip me, as I didn’t think anyone but my master ought to do it, or at least authorize it.”
Another unique lot is a piece of sheet music from 1847 called “Farewell Song of Frederick Douglass on Quitting England for America—the Land of His Birth.” Douglass, who had escaped slavery, went to England and embarked on a lecture tour. After two years, he returned to the United States. The song was written to express the danger Douglass would face upon his return. Though a cover for the sheet music was offered at auction a few years ago, Stattler says this is believed to be the only extant copy of the complete music. It is estimated at $5,000-7,500.
A more contemporary lot is an album of aerial views of the historic march on Montgomery in 1965. “It was done by the military unit that was tasked with protecting the marchers who were protesting for voting rights, and that was something which the federal government was behind, but the local government and populace was not,” Stattler said. The album contains twenty-two photographs and a large map with arrows pointing to where the government planned to deploy troops. It is believed to be unique and is estimated at $3,000-4,000.
Swann also offers expertise as the oldest books and paper specialist auction house in America. “We’ve been proud to offer these African Americana sales for the past twenty-two years,” Stattler said. “It’s important history, and we have a role in getting it out to the public.”