Elizabeth Meaders was an 18-year-old New York City schoolteacher when she began purchasing Jackie Robinson memorabilia. When the new pursuit propelled her toward conventions for sports collectors, Meaders—now 90—remembers, “Even at a themed show, you find things beyond the subject you had first committed to.” Feeling “thunderstruck” by the Black military artifacts and civil rights posters she had discovered at these events, she decided to expand her collecting beyond the baseball legend and political activist.
On March 15, Meaders’s collection of more than 20,000 objects will be sold as a single lot by Guernsey’s. In a release for the sale, the New York–based auction house stated that “many qualified historians […] view the [c]ollection as being quite possibly the best, most comprehensive assemblage of items relating to the African American experience in existence.”
Although Meaders has grouped representations of Black history into subjects that include the Scourge of Slavery and the Struggle for Civil Rights, she is arguably proudest of the category Blacks in the Military. “[African Americans have] participated in every single war—and in every war we played a unique, almost pivotal role,” she says of this public service. A medal given to African American troops by Union General Benjamin F. Butler and a Nazi flag signed by members of the 761st Tank Battalion count among Meaders’s military artifacts, which also emphasize Black aviators.
“Sports is the story of joy, and the African American story is a joyful story,” Meaders says. She reflects further on her decision to document Black experience in its totality, yet “the more I got into collecting, the more I realized the bigger story had not been documented.” Looking back on her decades of amassing objects, she calls its result “a teaching and healing instrument of patriotism.”
Additional historical figures depicted in the Elizabeth Meaders Collection include Crispus Attucks, Josephine Baker, Marcus Garvey, Barack Obama, and Harriet Tubman. Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s, says that even though several objects are individually valuable and many others are poignant, “The collection is better than the sum of its parts. Elizabeth’s passion and determination would rival that of anyone whose collection is made up of diamonds.”
Meaders chose Guernsey’s to auction her collection because it is “out-of-the-box,” she says, referring to how the house eschews scheduled sales for a project-based approach. Ettinger says Meaders first established contact with him 20 years ago, although she did not authorize the auction until early January this year. He reports that interested buyers are so far split evenly between private collectors and institutions, and there has been conjecture that an individual might purchase the collection on behalf of a museum or university. “We’ve spoken to folks who talk about this collection as something they could tour, while others talk about making a museum where you rotate categories of the collection,” Ettinger adds. “We’ve also spoken to schools where you could conceivably build a whole curriculum around the collection, and students could have hands-on involvement in cataloging.”
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Asked whether she had considered bequeathing her collection to a family member or donating it directly to a museum, Meaders acknowledges that her efforts have incurred a financial cost. More important, “African American history has to have a value placed on it. It’s not a matter of enriching me, because I’m beyond the age of even translating wealth into anything. But I think this collection has the right to have a value placed on it. We live in a society where sneakers sell for $2 million and baseball cards sell for $3 million. What kind of value, then, does America place on a history that predates the nation’s founding?”
The auction will be held online at liveauctioneers.com and invaluable.com, as well as via telephone bid with Guernsey’s. Meaders notes that she will make herself available to her collection’s next owner, especially if that buyer does not have a professional staff of curators, archivists, and conservators who can expertly navigate it. “Sometimes something appears to be inconsequential, but it’s not,” she explains of her offer. “I will have to play a role in making sure they know the really important items.”