The history of Afro-Americans in the US cannot be told in a short article without leaving out certain names and events and the fact that I'm a lily-white pensioner from the Netherlands doesn't help either. However, a post on FB inspired us to bring some decks together that were designed and published by Afro-Americans or have brought Afro-American faces on the court cards. Just writing about the decks felt like taking a short-cut. Playing cards are part of our culture and the non-standard decks or the backs of standard decks often express how we looked at things in a certain era. Our collection of Afro-American playing cards may not be fully complete and certainly not enough to cover the complete Afro-American history. There are antique decks with back designs or special jokers that express how we looked at black people around 1900, but we collect non-standard decks and not standard decks, games or single backs. As far as we know no antique non-standard decks have been published that reflect the Afro-American cause and the first non-standard decks started to appear in the 1970's. However, a short historic survey is necessary to explain the circumstances, that have led to the publication of the decks that we show here.

The "Afro" in Afro-Americans refers to their roots. Initially they were brought from Africa, mostly the Western part, to America to work as slaves. Already in 1526 the Portuguese completed the first transatlantic voyage from Africa to America and it didn't take long before other countries followed. The Dutch were one of the major players in slave trading in the 17th and 18th century.
In the 19th century slavery became more and more opposed in the United States and it was abolished in 1865, following the end of the Civil War. Although in those days they were called negro or black, the Afro-Americans never forgot their Afro roots. Although facilitated by European-Americans, already in 1822 a colony was founded on the West coast of Africa, Liberia. It was a place in Africa where former slaves could return to. Liberia proclaimed independence in 1847.

Although not slaves any more, the Afro-Americans were never treated as equals and one could say that racial discrimination has existed up to today. As a reaction a black awareness arose and when more and more blacks gained access to university and a good education, they encouraged the teaching of the history of blacks in public schools in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1926 a "Negro History Week" was created in the US. It was the second week of February and chosen because traditionally the black community had already celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on the 12th and of Frederic Douglas on the 14th together for years. Since 1976 a Black History Month is celebrated in educational  institutions and cultural and community centers all over the US.

It seems that in the 1960's, a revolutionary decade in more than one way, a new wave a black awareness arose. Revolutionary movements like the Black Panthers and peaceful Civil Rights movements like that of Martin Luther King, rose and progress was made: the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and '68 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Large scale riots and massive marches had done their job. The black awareness echoed on during the first part of the 1970's and that's when the first of our presented decks appeared.

We have set them in a chronological order, but feel free to browse at random too.


All these decks were produced during the 1970's. In the late 1960's it was already sung that "the times they are changing" and in the 1970's that process has led to a good deal of changes. There was more emphasis on individuality and personal freedom, more interest in the political, social and economical developments and a greater awareness of the world around us. Within the Afro-American community it has led to a greater awareness of race and roots.

Is it remarkable that we haven't found an Afro-American themed deck from the 1980's? Probably not. It was a completely different decade, starting with a global economical recession, that hit the US in July 1981. It led to the highest unemployment rates since the 1930's Great Depression in 1982. Together with a rising inflation this has caused mass unemployment within the Afro-American community, resulting in higher crime rates, often drugs or gang related. A lot of Afro-Americans were struggling to survive and probably had other things on their mind than soul searching, black pride and connecting with their roots. 

In the early 1990's the American economy was still struggling to get out of the recession, but in the mid 1990's the economy was booming again. Maybe that's one explanation for the publication of the above decks. Anyway, a sort of revival of the 1970's feelings must have taken place, of which the renewed edition of the original Sheba deck is the most apparent example. Probably a renewed interest in the history of the Afro-Americans arose, as three of the four decks are referring to their African roots again.


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