Fragile Prosperity: Material Culture in the Post-Emancipation Era
Perhaps it was a fresh reading of James Walvin’s first chapter on the sugar bowl etched into my mind, or perhaps a personal affinity for ‘pretty things’, but as I considered the history behind glass at the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society (CKBHS), I was drawn to a teapot and creamer set; intricately decorated with pink orchids and green vine dancing on white porcelain. As I examined each piece, I wondered at what stories it might be harbouring; how it came to be purchased and by whom, the meaning behind ownership of this commodity, and how it came to its final home in the museum? I realized I had found my artifact for my project.
The purpose of my artifact is innately domestic, but when you begin to consider attributes beyond its function, there is more to this artifact than merely a story of hearth and home. After narrowing a date of possible manufacture, considering the luxurious style of the piece, its quality and condition; this artifact reveals its significance to a broader narrative of anti-slavery.
Consequently, my research seeks to explore the question of how this porcelain teapot and creamer set is a testament to the processes of social transcendence, material prosperity and cultural reclamation in the post-emancipation period, but how it is also a testament to the fragility of these perceived advancements.
My first line of inquiry in my research was to consult the artifact itself. On the bottom of both pieces is a marker written in very fine calligraphy, “nippon hand painted”. Through conducting queries online, I discovered that ‘nippon’ is a term used to denote products manufactured in Japan. The term came about as a response to an American policy, known as the McKinley Tariff Act which required all imports into the United States be labelled in legible English words, and nippon “[approximated] a pronunciation of the Japanese word for Japan”[i]. Due to the fact that the nippon label is connected to a government act that existed between the years of 1891-1921 approximately, I can situate the manufacturing of my artifact within those years as well.
Not only does the nippon label delineate an era of production, but that era also aligns with an emerging wealthy class keen and able to collect ‘exotic’ porcelain. It is during this ‘gilded age’ that Japanese porcelain was crafted to “[appeal] to American collectors of porcelain and their design taste”[ii]. Recognizing the historical origins of this artifact is integral to understanding how ownership of this artifact contributes to a counter narrative in the post-emancipation era.
The teapot and creamer set was donated by a woman named Dorothy L Binga. Since I had a donor’s name, it made logical sense to begin my exploration of my artifact by asking the museum staff who Dorothy was and if her family history was on record at the museum; this would establish my path for further research. As I sifted through a binder on the Binga family history, I noticed a considerably amount of ink was dedicated to a man by the name of Jesse Binga; it is within his lifetime that I believe my artifact begins its journey in the Binga lineage.
A ‘Fragile’ Narrative
Jesse Binga is the grandfather of Dorothy, our donor in this story. Jesse was born in 1865 in Detroit Michigan to William and Adelphia Binga, both parents having been classified as ‘entrepreneurs’; a talent that was indisputably inherited by their son, Jesse [iii]. A man with “restless ambition”, Jesse left a marriage and child behind in Detroit in search of work across America [iv]. He would work in Tacoma, Seattle, San Francisco and a host of other cities before arriving in Chicago in 1895, where he would build his real-estate and banking empire[v]. Records claim Jesse arrived in Chicago at the exact opportune moment to respond to the mass migration of black families from the south, whereby “[after] 1900 it was a practical matter to purchase homes of affluent whites who were “flying the coop” (white flight). This created a supply of houses which Binga was able to sell to an emerging improved housing market”[vi]. Jesse Binga established himself as not only a real-estate man but also as a financial mogul, and in 1909 he purchased a building on 35th and South State street where he opened the Binga State Bank[vii].
Jesse Binga earned for himself the reputation of being one of the early “black pioneers” of Chicago, working against the social and racial parameters of his time to succeed as an entrepreneur; his efforts were met with a mixture of pride and indignation from the black communities he worked in and for. As Jesse’s real-estate holdings and financial empire expanded, he was able to move out of the overcrowded and increasingly ghettoized region of the city and purchase a home in an affluent white neighbourhood; a move that was both celebrated as progressive and yet Jesse, among others of this new ‘black middle class’ were ridiculed for having “abandoned their traditional communities”[viii].
All this to say, Jesse Binga epitomized the possibility of exceptional wealth; an ideal platform for the purchase of an elegant nippon teapot and creamer set. My initial inference in my research determined that the teapot and creamer set may have been purchased by Jesse Binga’s second wife whom he married around 1912, Chicago elite and socialite, Eudora Johnson. Records claimed Eudora was an art collector, making her an ideal candidate for the purchase of an object designed to the expectations of a wealthy class[ix]. I inferred that it was through the hands of Eudora and Jesse that the teapot and creamer were transferred in the Binga family lineage, arriving in the possession of Dorothy in Chatham-Kent.
As my research progressed, my rudimentary assumptions about the teapot and creamer’s ownership proved to be as fragile as the artifact itself. In the later stages of my research, I met with Dorothy’s nephew, Gerry Binga and his wife Glenna to discuss his family history; it is through this meeting that the story of the teapot and creamer veers us down a different path of inquiry.
The Family Tapestry: A New Narrative Forms
I met with Dorothy’s nephew to solidify a very essential component of my research; the connection between Jesse Binga and his son, Bethune Deville Binga, Dorothy’s father. The relationship between Jesse and his son appeared to be the obvious point of transmission of the teapot and creamer; a family heirloom given away at the end of Jessie and Eudora’s lifetime and brought to Chatham-Kent where Bethune raised his family. Alternatively, in my meeting with Gerry, he explained to me that this was likely not the case as Jesse and his son Bethune had a strained relationship, likely the result of Jessie having left Bethune and his mother, Frances Scott, early in Bethune’s life. Further to that, Gerry claimed that Jesse’s wife Eudora certainly would not have had a presence in Bethune’s life, making it very unlikely that the teapot and creamer would have been given to Bethune in this way, as a family heirloom from Jessie and Eudora.
Through my conversations with Gerry, the possibility of a new story emerged. A story that does not depart entirely from Jesse Binga as the origins for the teapot and creamer, but rather a story that corrects the means of transmission of the artifact from father to son. Gerry agreed that the date of manufacturing of the teapot and creamer, being between 1891-1921, aligned well with Jesse Binga’s lifetime and social stature; therefore, it was likely it still came from him. The likely story of this teapot and creamer may be as follows: Though Bethune was relatively estranged from his father, he did still have a relationship with him. In 1909, Bethune Binga married Mary E. Smith (Dorothy’s mother) in Chicago. It is most plausible that Jesse, who could well afford it, gave the elegant teapot and creamer to the new husband and wife as a wedding gift.
This explanation responds to my research question of how the teapot and creamer are a testament to the processes of social transcendence, material prosperity and cultural reclamation. The nature of the teapot and creamer demonstrates the affluence of Jesse Binga, a man of a cohort of black pioneers who were “agents of spatial and socioeconomic expansion”[x]. Jesse’s ability to purchase and gift this object is a testament to his transcendence of a class system that historically excluded people of his race; in the post-emancipation era the opportunity for this to change was conceivable.
Further, inherent in this social transcendence exists the reality of material prosperity, also demonstrated through the teapot and creamer set. As James Walvin explains, “on both sides of the Atlantic families left an increasing number of material objects from one generation to another. And among the most striking features of those possessions were…tea and coffee accessories[xi]. The beautiful nippon teapot and creamer are indicative of a desire to consume and the purchasing power to do so.
This material prosperity is also bound to a process of cultural reclamation, whereby, tea-drinking and the accessories that accompany it, being elements of a “bourgeois culture”, are being adopted by individuals whose ancestors were once enslaved to that very thing[xii]. Therefore, as James Walvin’s story of the ‘sugar bowl’ demonstrated a story of oppression and enslavement, this teapot and creamer, also an “[accoutrement] of Victorian ritual”, offers a story of reclamation and empowerment[xiii].
Just as the teapot and creamer might provide an answer to the tenets of my research question, it is also a testament to the fragility of the aforementioned advancements in the post-emancipation era. Jesse Binga’s financial empire would eventually collapse; the pressure of the looming depression caused Jesse to “overstep some legal barriers” as spectators explained, to remain resilient[xiv]. Along with the failure of the Binga State Bank, Jesse Binga also lost his social prestige; an identity he would not be able to reclaim. His gift to his son, the teapot and creamer, would serve its modest household in Chatham-Kent where Bethune raised his family and though the object was purchased through wealth, its final home in Chatham on the East side of the train tracks, would represent a humble ending to its functional life.
This piece now retired sits in the museum, placed in a china cabinet with other domestic wares; but as we have discovered, this teapot and creamer holds more than just liquids. This artifact weaves an invisible thread between the life of Jesse Binga in Chicago with Bethune and Dorothy in Chatham-Kent; the result is a tapestry of tales of social uplift, fashion, material prosperity and the fragility of these worldly ideas. This teapot and creamer figuratively sits at the table of a new home and it serves a new function; the telling of this story.
Binga, Anthony J. “Jessie Binga Founder and President, Binga State Bank, Chicago, Illinois” Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (1971): 51
Chicago Black History Forum, “Jessie Binga and Eudora Johnson Binga”, provided by Professor Emeritus and General Secretary, Christopher Reed.
CollectorsWeekly. “Antique Nippon Porcelain”. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/asian/nippon-porcelain. Accessed November 16th 2018.
Cooley, Will. “Moving on Out: Black Pioneering in Chicago, 1915-1950”. Journal of Urban History, 36 vol 1 (2010): 485-506. DOI: 10.1177/0096144210363071
drloriv.com, “Nippon,” accessed February 23rd 2019, https://www.drloriv.com/Tips/ID/4221/Nippon
Johnson, Cherene Sherrard. “Radical Tea: Racial Misrecognition and the Politics of Consumption in Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkin’s Four Girls at Cottage City.” Legacy 24 no. 2 (2007): 226.
Walvin, James. Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2017.
Weems, Robert. Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship in Chicago. Chicago Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
[i] “Antique Nippon Porcelain,” collectorsweekly.com, accessed February 23rd 2019, https://www.collectorsweekly.com/asian/nippon-porcelain
[ii] “Nippon,” drloriv.com, accessed February 23rd 2019, https://www.drloriv.com/Tips/ID/4221/Nippon
[iii] Weems, Robert, Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship in Chicago, (Chicago Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2017)
[iv] Weems, Robert, Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship in Chicago, (Chicago Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2017)
[vi] Binga, Anthony J. “Jessie Binga Founder and President, Binga State Bank, Chicago, Illinois” Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, (1971): 51.
[vii] Ibid., 52
[viii] Cooley, Will. “Moving On Out: Black Pioneering in Chicago, 1915-1950” Journal of Urban History. 36 no 4 (2010): 486.
[ix] Chicago Black History Forum, “Jessie Binga and Eudora Johnson Binga”, accessed February 23rd 2019.
[x] Cooley, Will. “Moving On Out: Black Pioneering in Chicago, 1915-1950” Journal of Urban History. 36 no 4 (2010): 486.
[xi] Walvin, James, Slavery in small things: Slavery and modern cultural habits (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017).
[xii] Johnson, Cherene Sherrard. 2007. “Radical Tea: Racial Misrecognition and the Politics of Consumption in Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkin’s Four Girls at Cottage City”. Legacy, 24 (2): 226
[xiv] Binga, Anthony J. “Jessie Binga Founder and President, Binga State Bank, Chicago, Illinois” Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (1971).