Donation of African Americana to UCSD opens window on Black life in the Old West
The Triton alumnus, who began the collection about 25 years ago, says he has “always been interested in stories less told.”
Steve Turner is a longtime collector more interested in the hunt than the money. Whether it’s stamps, baseball cards, or paintings, he’s been drawn mostly to what he calls “the stories lesser told.” The underdogs.
That’s how he came to amass a 300-piece collection of photos, pamphlets, postcards, posters and other materials that tell a particular tale: what Black life was like in the Old West, the period from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. He recently donated the collection to UC San Diego.
“I’d see a lot of stuff from the things that made the Old West famous, like the Gold Rush or Custer’s Last Stand or the Shootout at the O.K. Corral,” Turner said. “But I also noticed what I wasn’t seeing, which were images of the unknown participants.”
Finding them wasn’t easy, at least not when he started the collection about 25 years ago. The first piece, from a silver mining town in Nevada, was a photo of a group of Black people standing in front of a saloon. He asked the dealer he bought it from to let him know if anything similar surfaced.
“That’s impossible,” Turner remembered the dealer telling him. “These things are rarer than hens’ teeth.”
Now what’s known as African Americana is increasingly prized, both by scholars and collectors. Swann Galleries, an auction house in New York City, is holding an auction Thursday with more than 350 items, including an early draft of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” valued at $15,000 to $25,000.
At an auction four years ago, a previously unrecorded photograph of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman sold for $161,000.
Turner’s collection includes two rare photo postcards of legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first Black world heavyweight champion. The pictures are from when he lived in Mexico, where he fled after he was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury of transporting his white girlfriend across state lines for “immoral purposes” — a case now seen as payback for Johnson beating white opponents and for his flamboyant lifestyle.
One of the photos is of Johnson standing in front of what is believed to be his saloon in Tijuana. The other is of him on horseback, apparently on his way to the border to surrender to law enforcement and begin serving what turned out to be a 10-month prison sentence.
There are also photos of Black people at work and at play and of civic leaders and anonymous citizens. There also were photos of Ku Klux Klan members in white hoods, a frightening part of the story, too, for Black Americans in that place and time.
“The choice to move West was a sign that many Blacks conceptualized the region as an area in which freedom could finally be achieved and contributed to the West’s portrayal in the national imagination,” said Jessica Graham, an associate professor of history at UC San Diego and director of its Black Studies Project. “However, we know that the struggles in the western United States were both similar to and unique from those that Blacks faced elsewhere in the country, and this collection offers the rare opportunity to uncover that history and much more.”
The collection, which also includes more recent material, such as Black Panther posters from the 1960s, will be available for scholars and students to use. It will also be digitized and offered online for the public to see, according to Lynda Claassen, director of Special Collections & Archives at UC San Diego, where the Turner material will be housed.
“It’s a mix of what you would call everyday activities, like going to the beach or sitting on a burro in Tijuana,” she said. “It offers wonderful views into how people conducted their lives during a particular period.”
It is the first archive of African Americana at the university, which also has significant collections of material about California, Pacific voyages and American poetry, as well as children’s author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk.
Turner, 61, attended UC San Diego, graduating with a degree in political science in 1982. He went on to law school, but after awhile didn’t find the work stimulating. His heart was in collecting.
He’d been doing it since he was child growing up in Los Angeles. He started with stamps and baseball cards.
“I can actually remember the first time I had that excitement of wanting something and later acquiring it,” he said. “I never lost that feeling. It was less about having a lot of money and more about having curiosity, passion and trust in your own instincts.”
He kept collecting through high school and college, gravitating toward rare posters. In the late 1980s, he met Victoria Dailey, a rare book dealer. They married and opened a gallery together. She’s now a full-time writer, but he continues to run a gallery in Los Angeles focused on modern art.
“She stimulated a lot more interests in me,” he said, including the history of Southern California and the Old West. He collected ephemera of all kinds — not just photos, postcards and posters, but also restaurant menus, magazines, brochures and pinback buttons.
“There are aspects of history we wouldn’t even know about without this kind of material,” he said. “It’s not just the main story, but these lesser-known aspects of everyday life, the anecdotes, that give you the full picture.”
The collection he donated to UC San Diego includes several items about a man known as Reuben the Guide, who settled in San Diego in the 1880s and took tourists in his horse-drawn wagon to what was then called Tia Juana.
“He was born a free man in the Midwest, came to California and became a prominent figure in San Diego,” Turner said. “His history is amazing, and it’s fascinating what you can learn about him from postcards, cabinet cards (photographs mounted on cardboard) and even cigar labels.”
Turner said putting the collection together took some doing. That first dealer was right: The items were hard to find. “That just became my motivation,” he said.
Patience was a virtue too. The collection includes two letters written around 1884 by Allen Allensworth, a former enslaved man, military chaplain and founder of a San Joaquin Valley town that was financed and governed by Black people. Turner acquired the first one in 2006, the second in 2017.
Letters written 133 years earlier and sent their separate ways were together again. “That is the magic of collecting, and it happens more than you would think,” Turner said.
Over the years, as he asked dealers and friends from coast to coast to keep their eyes open, questions of cultural appropriation — a white man collecting Black memorabilia — were never raised with him, he said. He bought from white dealers and from Black dealers. He loaned items to the California African American Museum in Los Angeles for exhibits.
“Maybe it’s because I was really early in collecting this material, but it was never an issue,” he said. “People were impressed that I was interested in it and sympathetic to what I was trying to do.”
A new home
Turner decided last year that it was time for the collection to find a new home. He’d spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” putting it together and wanted more people to be able to see it.
“When you collect, you are either in a very heavy acquisition mode, or you kind of sense that things are drying up,” he said. “I could sense that it wasn’t growing as it had been.”
UC San Diego was a logical landing spot, he said, because of his ties to the campus and because its Special Collections already include materials focused on California history. It might also be a welcome addition on a campus that has struggled to recruit Black students.
Turner hopes the collection inspires students and scholars to “dig deeper into stories that are only introduced by an object.” Maybe a student will write a dissertation sparked by one of the items, he said. Maybe a professor will use some of the postcards or letters while teaching a class.
And maybe someone will see what he did and want to be a collector too.
“That,” he said, “would be a wonderful gift back to me.”
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