Shelley Brazley of Hempstead holds an African tribal mask with...

Shelley Brazley of Hempstead holds an African tribal mask with cowry beads, part of her personal collection, curated over three decades. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

History surrounds Shelley Brazley in her kitchen, where shelves and shelves of old tin advertisements, dolls, ceramics and other objects depict Blacks with watermelons and in other settings.

In this room, visitors may be repulsed by the Jim Crow-era caricatures; others are curious about the collector’s motives. But Brazley, who is Black, sees herself as a steward and storyteller of Black history and culture.

“We were the people that, whatever happened to us and whatever state we were in, we made the best of it,” said Brazley, 66, who grew up in Hempstead and is a legislative aide to Hempstead Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby. “That is amazing to me, and nothing for us to be ashamed of. If the master had rotten peaches, that’s what they gave their slaves to eat. And what did we do? We made peach cobbler.”

A bronze mask and a Zimbabwean Shona stone bust are among the items loaned to the Joysetta & Julius Pearse Museum of African American History.

The former art gallery owner has spent half her life buying and selling objects that give her a panoramic view of African Americans’ journey.

She has filled the walls, cabinets and backyard of her Hempstead home with commemorations of Black history figures, works by Black artists, African and Africa-themed objects and tools of the slave trade.

African royalty-themed midcentury ceramic vases, made by floral companies to encourage flower purchases, line a shelf. Brass masks from Nigeria’s ancient Benin tribe hang on walls. Fashion designer Bob Mackie’s Fantasy Goddess of Africa Barbie sits next to those created for Asia and the Americas.

Shelley Brazley built a fireplace mantel from which to display this stained-glass portrait of Malcolm X. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Her stained-glass portrait of Malcolm X is an acquisition with a back story as bold as Brazley. More than 25 years ago, when one of her art suppliers, who was white, showed her the piece, she ordered him to put it in the trunk of her car, saying, “You can’t have it.” She bought it, then built a fireplace in her living room to display the civil rights leader in the place of pride, on the mantel.

“When I walk through my door, I love looking around at these images,” she said. “I get energy from the creativity of my people.”

Always collecting

Shelley Brazley has a collection of midcentury ceramic head vases that were produced to encourage the purchase of floral bouquets. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Brazley said she’s never passed a thrift store or flea market without going in. She has amassed an eclectic collection over more than 30 years through her travel as one of the nation’s first Black flight attendants and as the proprietor of an art gallery in Hempstead.

Objects showing Blacks with watermelons launched Brazley’s deep interest in artifacts of a shameful period in U.S. history. It’s been more than 20 years since her sister-in-law sent her a tin advertisement with a caricature of a Black child eating a watermelon. “I loved how unique the gift was,” Brazley said. “It was primarily the advertising tins that I started collecting first, then Jim Crow signs. I started noticing Black memorabilia, and I was kind of drawn to it.”

While many feel a deep wound when they see that kind of old ad or artifact, Brazley thirsted to know “their place in history and how our history was so distorted.”

After renovating her kitchen 10 years ago, she displayed her watermelon pieces — historical and contemporary — and thought “Wow, I like that,” seeing the color they injected into the room. She began scooping up watermelon-themed objects, with friends alerting her to items or buying them for her.

In her kitchen one recent afternoon, she took a closer look at one piece, a favorite because it’s rare. The heavy ceramic item, about 7 inches high, shows three Black children sitting next to a fence eating the juicy fruit. One boy has a big piece of watermelon lodged between his lips. Another seems to be missing teeth.

Watermelon-themed kitchenwares — including pitchers, bowls and hand towels —...

Watermelon-themed kitchenwares — including pitchers, bowls and hand towels — inject a burst of color into Brazley’s kitchen in Hempstead.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

“They made them ugly,” Brazley said of the images of Black people on products during the Jim Crow era, the period of enforced segregation in parts of the United States from the late 1800s to the mid-1960s.

It was during this period that advertisers began to use racist imagery on everything from soap to kitchenware as a way to demean Blacks and associate products with the racist “feeling” that was popular at the time, scholars say. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan collects such items in its mission to use “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote a more just society.”

The stereotype linking Blacks and watermelons is believed to have started after white landowners allowed enslaved people to grow and sell whatever they wanted. Watermelons became a favorite crop because not many plantation owners were growing them, and they were relatively easy to grow, said Zebulon Miletsky, an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Africana Studies and History. Enslaved and freed Black people made a success of selling the melons, gaining a measure of independence that led to “a jealous sort of hatred” among the whites, he said.

“You’re selling the same product over and over again, which is the feeling of superiority and the kind of fascination that white America has for all things Black,” Miletsky said.

Shelley Brazley in her kitchen with a brass plate honoring the...

Shelley Brazley in her kitchen with a brass plate honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

In a country still struggling today to come to terms with the effects of slavery, with leaders in several states attempting to undermine or rewrite the teaching of Black history, it’s important to preserve the type of artifacts in Brazley’s collection, said David Taft Terry, an associate professor of history at Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore, and a former executive director of Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

Terry calls such Blacks-and-watermelon artifacts “white-supremacist Americana.”

“The point was not to be accurate or truthful,” Terry said. “The point was to ridicule and demean, and watermelons were a convenient vehicle for doing that.”

“The overarching truth about Black memorabilia is as a teaching tool. It’s a basic way of just affirming ‘We’re not crazy. This stuff is real,’ ” he said.

Activist upbringing

A sculpture of Harriet Tubman in the home of Shelley Brazley, who is a legislative aide to Hempstead Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

There’s no denying history for Brazley because she has lived some of it.

Her parents educated their children in Black current events. Going to Black Panther rallies and civil rights meetings was a family affair. They went to Harlem to hear a young civil rights leader, Malcolm X, give sidewalk sermons, though Brazley, then about 8, remembers little of what he said.

When Brazley and her sister turned 12 and 11, respectively — they were born a year apart on Dec. 13 — their father bought as their birthday gift a set of academic books about the origins of racial hierarchy by Joel Augustus Rogers, a Jamaican American journalist and historian. “I was so angry,” Brazley said of her reaction back then. But by the time she and her sister were ready to part ways for college, she recalled, they were fighting over who got to take the books, recognizing the value of the educational environment their parents had cultivated.

“It helped mold me and my world perspective,” Brazley said.

Brazley has an extensive collection of first day covers, which...

Brazley has an extensive collection of first day covers, which are franked on the first day a stamp is authorized for use.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A Hempstead High School graduate, Brazley briefly attended Towson State in Maryland, then took African studies at Nassau Community College. But when airlines began to hire Blacks for what she considered decent wages, she applied and started her career as a United Airlines flight attendant in 1978. She later became part of the “Soul Patrol,” a group of Black flight attendants who tried to work the same routes on Continental Airlines, then took early retirement in 1990 after problems between the union and airline owners.

Around that time, she was pregnant with her first child and started helping out at Pan African International, the Hempstead bookstore specializing in Black history and Black writers that she and her then-husband owned. A noted
Dallas-based artist, Frank Frazier, would regularly stop in to trade his prints for books, so Brazley started framing and pricing them for sale. When Frazier saw how cheaply she was selling them, he got upset and starting taking her to art galleries, beginning her education about art collectibles.

In 1998, the store closed, as competitors began catering to Black consumers.

Africa’s Richest Treasures, Shelley Brazley’s gallery, featured art and collectibles like...

Africa’s Richest Treasures, Shelley Brazley’s gallery, featured art and collectibles like this plate. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

She would open her own art gallery, Africa’s Richest Treasures, in Hempstead in 2007, stocking it with finds from estate sales and stores. Shoppers purchased her “Colored Waiting Room” placards and other artifacts of segregation and the slave trade until the recession forced her to close in 2009.

Brazley has been active in the community, including working as acting executive director of Nassau County’s Office of Minority Affairs, which she left in 2018; creating a Hempstead dance studio in 1998 for the Salvation Army that she ran until 2009; and building interest in tennis among young Blacks as the assistant Long Island regional director for the U.S. Tennis Association in the mid-2000s. She served as a Hempstead school board member (2012-15) and was named among the Top 50 influential women in 2017 by Long Island Business News.

Teaching others

The "Wanted" poster is on loan from Brazley for a Black History Month exhibit at Hempstead Town Hall. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A constant through Brazley’s myriad accomplishments has been using her collection to broaden people’s views of Blacks, whether in the privacy of her home or in a public space.

Her pieces have been loaned for exhibits, including reproductions of African masks now on display at the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead and the FBI wanted posters of political activists like Angela Davis at Hempstead Town Hall.

Brazley is also drawn to objects that seem to depict African royalty, and she wants people to know that Blacks weren’t always slaves, but were kings and queens. Last year, she purchased a 2-foot-tall rock sculpture she describes as an “African queen” from a Westbury thrift shop and still is amazed at the price — $40. “The stone carving of an African woman, from Zimbabwe, that graces my pond area, is my all-time greatest find,” she said.

By supporting Black artists, Brazley says, she’s shredding the Jim Crow-era stereotype of Blacks as uncivilized. One of her favorite pieces is a limited-edition print of “Prophet II,” bought from its creator, George Nock, an artist and sculptor who previously played football for the New York Jets and the team now known as the Washington Commanders. In Nock’s painting, an elderly gentleman seems to emerge from a white background, his left hand slightly curled in the foreground. “He represents strength and wisdom to me,” Brazley said.

Her ongoing education project is a “mobile museum” that she hopes will travel to venues around the Island. It grew out of her Social Action Ministry at Freeport’s Zion Cathedral Church of God in Christ and is called Club 365 because, she said, Black history should be 365 days a year, not just in February.

Among Shelley Brazley’s prized finds is a 2-foot-tall rock sculpture she describes as an “African queen” from a Westbury thrift shop. She’s still amazed at the price — $40. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

For its first exhibit, “The Economic Reality of a Peculiar Institution,” focusing on the institution of slavery and violence against Blacks in the North, she chose items from her collection that could be easily transported. Among the artifacts displayed at the church last year were wanted posters seeking slaves, shackles, a slave hunter’s badge and a Juneteenth flag.

To Bishop Frank A. White of the Zion Cathedral, Brazley is an “essential” educator, one who highlights a different angle of Black history.

“To use a phrase from the late Malcolm X, who said that American universities and colleges have been skillfully used to miseducate people, a person like Shelley Brazley is absolutely essential for all of us to see perhaps through a different prism or perspective so we can come to a proper conclusion,” White said.

For Brazley, collecting the good with the bad, digging for facts and sharing her stewardship of Black history is “a way of life.”

“We are responsible for telling our story, and we should not wait for anybody to do that,” Brazley said. “When Jews talk about the Holocaust, everybody takes it very seriously, and they let you know what was perpetuated on them as a people. We are embarrassed about what was done to our people, and we shouldn’t be.

“We should never forget.”

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

Police ID victims in small plane crash ... What's next for Kamala Harris? . . . St. Rocco's preview . . . Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV

YOU'VE BEEN SELECTED

FOR OUR BEST OFFER ONLY 25¢ for 5 months

Unlimited Digital Access.

cancel anytime.