A tough piece of history

Stillwater collector: ‘I want to make people aware’

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2011 – 9:54 PM

Tony Carr’s collection of black memorabilia may strike a nerve, but he says the pieces are good teaching tools.

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Some of the pieces that Tony Carr has collected over the past 20 years.

Photo: Cy Dodson, Star Tribune

Tony Carr collects history, but it’s a piece of history that’s tough to view.Items in Carr’s collection include “Pickaninny Peppermints,” piano sheet music entitled “Coon Coon Coon” and a large saluting KKK figure in full garb.Carr, a former professional basketball player and current Stillwater resident, began collecting black memorabilia about 20 years ago.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you do this?’ ” says Carr. “Because it is history. But there’s no finger-pointing, it’s not about that. It’s about everyone’s struggle, and what my family went through.”

He has chronicled those family struggles in a book, which will be published late this fall by Mill City Press.

He said his parents couldn’t even view some of the pieces in his collection. “I’d show them a piece, and it would bring back memories,” he said, “It was a part of their life. They lived through this.”

The collection is displayed in the downstairs family room of Carr’s home. There’s a lit case on the back wall, and several items displayed here and there around the room. Carr said most of his collection is stored in boxes.

“My first piece was an Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shaker. I bought it down in northern Illinois for like 50 cents,” Carr said.

After that, he started paying attention and noticing other items. “I’d see a piece, an ash tray, and wonder ‘Where did that come from?’ I did my research, and that got the juices flowing.”

Carr’s passion and enthusiasm for history and his collection are obvious.

“Collecting is something I’m very passionate about,” Carr said. “There’s never a dull moment, always new stuff popping up that you never knew existed.”

Passion is apparent in all aspects of Carr’s life. He grew up in Beloit, Wis., and was a star athlete.

“I grew up in the north, and I’m a product of integration,” he said. “I was put in an all-white school, but I knew I had to assimilate and survive. One of my survival skills was basketball … that brought me up the ladder.”

He was a two-time all-state player in Wisconsin, and was recruited by several Big Ten schools. He ended going to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he was a three-time All-American and still holds numerous school scoring records. He went on to become a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball trial team, and in 1982, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.

He signed a one-year contract, but Carr said he became disillusioned with professional basketball. He left the Bucks and went to work for Merrick, Inc., where he spent 18 years working with the developmentally disabled. Currently, Carr is the Director of Community Programs for the American Red Cross, Twin Cities Area Chapter. He also served as the chairman of Stillwater’s Human Rights Commission until 2009.

His current favorite pastime is going on the road and speaking about his collection, especially in schools. It’s a chance for him to share the dehumanizing images in an effort to teach others about the struggles of his parents and grandparents.

“I don’t want to change people. I want to make people aware,” he said. “Be aware of what we say and how we say it. It makes me feel good.

“If my mom and dad knew I was showing this stuff in big arenas …” he laughed, shaking his head, “This keeps them alive to me, and this is no joke, I feel that they are right there.”

His collection brings out all sorts interested onlookers, including some one wouldn’t expect. Carr said that during a UW-Superior speaking engagement, members of the KKK showed up to authenticate his Klan statue.

“They [school officials] said, ‘Mr. Carr, would you like to not have these people come?’ … I said, ‘They’re a part of community. Let them come.’ They hung out afterwards, and maybe we all left a little bit more aware.”

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.

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