Images of Freedom: Photo Collection Shows the Faces of Emancipation

Unidentified African American soldier with wife and two daughters. (1863-1865) Ambrotype. Library of Congress.

When Deborah Willis studied the Civil War era as a teenager back in the 1960s, she recalls, her school lessons stuck to a single narrative: “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” The photographic collection in a new book by Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press), presents a more complex picture of the freedom story.  (I got in touch with Willis and Krauthamer after reading about their book in this post on KolorBlind Mag.)

Most of the book’s 150 images date from the 1850s, a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, to the 1930s. As a whole, the photographs and accompanying text show African Americans as agents in their emancipation: We see a teenage girl, posed in a big bell of a skirt, who had once disguised herself as a boy to flee slavery. An old man with a lifetime of stories written in his eyes holds up a slave-calling horn he doesn’t have to answer.  Sojourner Truth displays a daguerrotype of her grandson in Civil War uniform, calling attention to what’s at stake in the abolitionist cause. We also see the work of African-American photographers. One of them, Augustus Washington, was active in the anti-slavery movement before his emigration to Liberia.

For Willis, who is professor and chair of photography and imaging in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, it was an eye-opening experience to read the letters and diaries of soldiers, mothers, teachers, and other African Americans who took part in the struggle for Emancipation—“to hear their voices about their hopes and dreams for their loved ones,” she says. “The multiple narratives really expanded my idea of the lived experience of slavery [and new-found freedom].”

Nursemaid with child. ca. 1855. Ruby ambrotype, handpainted.
Library of Congress.

“What we wanted to show through the book was people’s dignity and sense of their own strengths and potential to shape the future,” adds Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. African Americans “were intellectually and philosophically engaged in the major political and social issues of the day.”

But that point didn’t come across in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie Lincoln, Krauthamer argues in this opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The film’s depiction of Emancipation largely excludes African-American women and men as anything other than the patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom,” she writes. “This is, of course, Spielberg’s prerogative as a filmmaker.”

Some of the photographs in Envisioning Emancipation were taken to support abolitionist causes. (Activist Sojourner Truth, for example, sold her portraits for 33 and 50 cents, which she referred to as “living on my shadow.”) Others were personal mementos, purchased by free African-Americans who could finally exercise some control over how they were presented. The laundress who appears on the book’s cover has a small American flag pinned to her dress in a nod to her patriotism. “When we look at these photographs, we see full human-beings,” Willis says. “They were creating their own biographies through these images.”

Not everyone had this chance, of course. Haunting the book are daguerrotypes of African Americans whose bodies were exposed for scientific study. Enslaved nursemaids are pictured holding white children in their laps. While the latter women served as human “restraints” for wiggling subjects, their presence also showed off the wealth of the white families who owned them, Krauthamer notes. She wonders what became of the women’s own children, if they had them. “Did they lose them to sale?”  What would it be like, she asks, “to be holding someone else’s child and wondering where is your own child?” The book contrasts those images with post-Emancipation portraits of older women with adult children and freeborn grandchildren. “How powerful an experience it must have been to pose with your own family,” she says.

Emancipation Day, Richmond, Va. ca. 1905.
Library of Congress.

Krauthamer and Willis became interested in this book project when they came across a small photograph of a woman in a white kerchief named “Dolly.” Her picture was pasted onto a $50 Reward notice that her master, Louis Manigault, created after she ran away from his Augusta, Georgia, plantation in 1863. Reflecting on her attractiveness and her “fine set of teeth,” Manigault seems to puzzle over why she left him. It is unclear why he possessed a picture of her. “We both thought that was a story that needed to be explored,” Willis says. Though some of the stories raise more questions than historians can answer, “these images allow us to connect to people whose lives would be lost [to us otherwise],” Krauthamer says.

Their book asks: “What did [Dolly] envision when she planned her escape? What did she see around her when she stepped outside her master’s yard and closed the gate behind her? When we look at her picture we see her life in slavery, but we also recognize that the picture is a testament to her liberation.”

In the end, Willis hopes their readers will find “a much more nuanced story about slavery. Not just the top down, but the fact that black people were actively involved in obtaining their freedom,” she says. “That’s what I want people to walk away with, because I didn’t know it when I was in high school.”

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3 thoughts on “Images of Freedom: Photo Collection Shows the Faces of Emancipation

  1. Hollywood (and historians in general) may simply be ‘simplifying’ history for us poor creatures – incapable as we are of understanding historical processes being run by many, ordinary, nameless, people. It’s easier to tell a story (or so they believe) by hanging it on the peg of a single, extraordinary, famous, individual.

    We all know, for example, that Marty McFly invented a particular style of music by going back thirty years in time and giving ideas to Chuck Berry’s chums and relatives. There are numerous such time-travel stories where some white chap teaches the poor locals something which we all know is autochthonic.

    As individual acts of story-telling, they are all – of course – jokes, and we shouldn’t get po-faced about ’em. But taken in the mass, as a movie trope, as a culturally accepted narrative, it may verge on something a little more egregious.

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