ABOVE PHOTO: Ronald Toby in his Northeast Philadelphia home filled inside with African American treasures of the past. (Photos: Webster Riddick)
By Chris Murray
For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
At first glance, Ronald Toby’s Northeast Philadelphia home looks like any other house in this working-class enclave, with its beige exterior and manicured lawn filled with plants and surrounded by a fence.
But when you walk inside, the collection of artifacts might make you feel like you’re in a time machine. The things that Toby has collected through the years could fit in easily at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) or the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (NMAAHC) in the nation’s capital.
Toby, 68, said he considers himself more of a curator than someone who just collects things.
Some of the items he acquired while came from working with his uncle at Ring Brothers Wholesale Toy Store and others have come fromcome was from flea markets and auctions and from collecting things from his family since he was 21.
The collection has been featured on the History Channel, and like a visit to NMAAHC, you won’t be able to see it all in one day.
“If you want to see something you had as a kid or something, you wanna see something your grandmother had, I can show it to you and it’s right here,” Toby said. “I can take you on a journey.”
There’s no one way to describe the inside of Toby’s home. If you say it’s a sports museum, you’re right. If you want to say it’s a monument to various parts of Americana, you’re also right.
If you want to call it a means to tell the story of a people, that works as well. If you want to call it a monument to the City of Philadelphia, go ahead.
In fact, he’d encourage that, Toby said. His hope is to partner with AAMP to showcase his collection.
“I’m a broke Walt Disney,” Toby said with a smile. “I would have more if somebody would give me some grants and stuff. That’s what I’m shooting on to make this good for Philadelphia.”
Among the things the collection includes is authentic African art, and nostalgic products that are no longer being produced, such as an 8-track stereo deck from the 1970s.
He also has an authentic icebox from the early 20th century which includes the actual tongs that were used to carry the ice needed to utilize it.
And his collection isn’t restricted to just historical artifacts. Toby’s home contains vintage toys from the 1950s to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century including the first Black Barbie doll, Star Wars and Star Trek action figures, and a model of the Mach 5 from the 1970s Japanese cartoon series, “Speed Racer.”
He has a model of the Batmobile from the 1960s series, “Batman” that was signed by Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward, who played Robin.
Toby’s home also contains a plethora of sports memorabilia that includes a pair of boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali, a football helmet signed by Hall of Famer Jim Brown, a mannequin wearing an authentic leather football helmet from the game’s early days and a catcher’s mitt once owned by Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella.
There is also a room devoted to the “sweet science” of boxing that includes an autographed pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing trunks, posters advertising the 1971 fight between Ali and Joe Frazier and, oddly enough, a barbershop chair.
There’s another display in a glass casing in which there is a replica army of Zulu Warriors.
The room Toby dubs his “Controversial Room” includes such Jim Crow era artifacts as “Sambo” banks, a figurine of “Uncle Ben” next to a bag of Uncle Ben’s rice and toy figurines of a Black baby used as a “gator bait.” He also demonstrated a working, wooden “Dancing Sam” figure which, guided by a stick, can dance.
While these artifacts are demeaning to African Americans, they’re also educational, Toby said. They may be painful to look at, but they also serve as a reminder of the barriers of racism that African Americans have had to break to accomplish even the most mundane of things, he said.
“It’s a toy to remind people of how sick they used to be,” Toby said. “I want people to enjoy themselves, learn a little truth. “There’s no animosity between us — it’s a damned museum. Some things you’ll like and some things you won’t. … You can’t be thin-skinned. You can’t let them get to you because they’re dumb anyway (referring to prejudiced whites of the Jim Crow era) …What kind of person would do that? We wouldn’t do that to a dog.”
What he gathers for his collection depends on where he’d ultimately like to do with it.
“I can go buy me a fabulous place that I want for a museum,” Toby said. “I’m going to eventually find where I want to go or I’m going to deal with the African-African American Museum to museum to see what kind of pull they’ve got. I’m not looking for one thing. Everything that I have in here, I bought myself. Every bit. One at a time. Two at a time. That’s it.”
For Toby, who spent 30 years as an employee of SEPTA, it is a collection of a lifetime. While the artifacts represent various times and places in his life, his goal is to turn it into a permanent collection that can be used as a means for educating young people and for his legacy.
“You want something to leave to your people,” Toby said. “Something to say that you were here, something to say that you lived in Philadelphia, something to say that ‘he lived in Richard Allen projects, he didn’t have nothing, he didn’t have a father, he didn’t have this, but he made the best out of what he had.’”
Perhaps the best comparison to what Toby is trying to create is the Barnes Foundation, which was once located in Dr. Albert Barnes’ home in Lower Merion. Like Barnes, Toby wants to create a museum for blue-collar workers as well as African-Americans.
“It’s history for us as a people,” Toby said. “My people.”
More scenes of Ronald Toby’s fabulous African and African American memorabilia….
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