Ready for bright lights

For many years, Larry Richards lovingly collected early black movie memorabilia. His widow envisions the trove playing proudly in a museum.

The Richards home in West Mount Airy is a showcase of early black cinema, the posters, films, and other items collected by librarian Larry Richards. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

The posters all started with an image of a red-shirted, cowboy-hatted Bill Pickett.

Larry Richards had been offering his black film festival at the West Philadelphia library branch for about four years when a friend came in with an art poster of the smiling black cowboy from the 1923 race film The Bull-Dogger. He wondered if Richards would like to display it.

A black movie poster? That was something new to Richards.

"He just became immediately taken with the art," Beverly Richards said of her husband, who was an artist. "He did not realize that art was attached to this genre. Then, he was on this crazed pursuit of more art."

So began a 20-year journey by Larry Richards, with Beverly at his side, to collect original posters, photos, films, lobby cards, and other items pertaining to black American cinema before the 1950s. It would not be an easy task, but it would result in a collection that is large, eclectic, and overwhelming in its breadth. He archivally preserved and cataloged each item, using his meticulous skills as a librarian of 35 years to ensure that they would suffer no degradation from time or the elements.

In January 2008, Richards retired as an administrator for the Free Library of Philadelphia, intent on spending even more time with his collection. It was not to be, though. Eleven months later, he died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. He was 58.

"I realized that a lot of these films would never be seen again," Richards wrote on his Web site, "and that the African American stars that made them possible would also slowly fade away."

Now, his collection is beginning to attract attention.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture has borrowed some items for its April exhibition on the 75th anniversary of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, It is also considering other parts of the collection, or all of it, for the yet-to-be-built museum scheduled to open in 2015, said Beverly Richards.

And the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University is negotiating to acquire some early pamphlets dating to the 1700s with links to Philadelphia.

Once Richards was smitten with the race posters, he began collecting race movies and other paraphernalia whenever he came across them, Beverly said. To school himself, he read reviews and articles in thousands of black newspapers from the 1890s to the 1950s and copied them for reference. He bought and read books on the subject.

"The collection is very significant," said Blockson, who first met Richards through his work as a librarian. "He knew what he was doing. He was a student of his collection. He collected to preserve history. He had conviction with commitment."

Larry and Beverly, his wife of 25 years, went to auctions, antiques shows, shops, and fairs, and Larry was forever at his computer checking out outlets for memorabilia. He got his collectibles on eBay, from private owners, and from Hollywood movie studios (the clothes in particular), sharing each find with the enthusiasm of a kid.

"To be able to look at what his ancestors experienced and were able to accomplish in spite of all the obstacles," Beverly said, "he was just impressed with their fortitude, with their creativity, with their perseverance. These guys made movies on a shoestring."

The hundreds of race movies, produced with all-black casts for black audiences between about 1915 and 1950, make up a large part of the collection. Beverly estimated that her husband acquired 75 percent of all the race movies made, and had viewed either all or parts of each. Larry produced masters of all of the films and for the last 10 years or so had been selling DVDs on his still-posted Web site. The original 70mm, 16mm, and other videos are stored.

From his research, he published a book in 1998, African American Films Through 1959, which lists 1,300 films with African American actors and themes.

Richards understood the importance of preservation. To make sure the posters and other papers endured, he set up a dehumidified room. He purchased huge rolls of linen and a special iron to affix the linen to the posters to preserve them, Beverly said.

"I can remember him buying a few [movie posters] that had been in a fire," Beverly said. "In one case, one-fifth of the bottom right corner was burned away. Because he was an artist, he actually linen-backed it with fresh paper and then painted on [the missing image] from having bought or seen a picture of the original poster."

His photographs number about 600. Some are displayed on a "Wall of Fame" at his West Mount Airy home, but most are in plastic sleeves in black binders in the dehumidified room.

The collection includes clothing of the early black movie stars, purchased from Hollywood studios with certificates of authenticity: Josephine Baker's red mink coat. Nat King Cole's sweater. Butterfly McQueen's gloves. Dorothy Dandridge's evening gown and negligee. Paul Robeson's coat from The Emperor Jones, loaned for a display at the Robeson house in West Philadelphia.

The couple acquired first-edition copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Black Sambo memorabilia, hand-embroidered linen with black figures, and about 400 pieces of Aunt Jemima memorabilia.

Beverly is unsure how much the collection is worth. But it was Larry's passion, she said, and he would be very excited if it ended up in a museum.

"That would be like the perfect fantasy, absolutely the perfect fantasy," she said.


Sherry L. Howard is the cofounder of a blog network called She blogs about the unique items she finds at auctions.