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.”

Families: How Those Torn Apart by Slavery Tried to Reunite

Spend any time reading 19th-century newspapers and you’ll likely find them: tucked among ads for barrels of ox beef and puncheons of rum will be notices of persons for sale or, equally unsettling, runaway ads that inventory the appearance or personality of a master’s departed slave. Usually, a reward was offered to track down the individual—“a stout fellow” or “a slender wench,” who was “considerable knock-kneed” or perhaps “marked with small pox,” and showing a “pleasing smiling countenance” or “a down look.”*

In her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, University of North Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams turns her attention to a third kind of newspaper communication—Information Wanted notices posted by African Americans themselves. After the Civil War, this was one of the ways that former slaves sought to find their loved ones.

It’s interesting that “this is how black people showed up in the newspaper most often in that century,” notes Williams in a recent phone interview. “The runaway ads are about money, offering a reward to get ‘property’ back,” she says. In contrast, the Information Wanted ads launch “an emotional appeal.” But rather than providing physical details of the missing person, whose appearance may have changed with the passage of time, they typically use the owner’s name as an identifier.

“I think they’re all really laden with emotion—some much more explicit than others,” she says. “You get some where there is this resentment really coming through. They put the word owner in quote marks, making this rhetorical challenge to the idea of one person owning another. But then they are also poignant—not because they say I loved my mother and cry for her every night, but because somebody has been looking for his mother for 21 years. He thinks he somehow might have a chance [of finding her.]”

In an ad that appears in Nashville’s Colored Tennessean on October 7, 1865, Thornton Copeland wrote, “Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother … My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.”

“That one is really poignant because it raises lots of issues which people contended with,” Williams says. How do you find someone after a separation of more than two decades? “How do you find someone whose name was Betty, knowing that the owner could have changed her name at any point?

“There’s hope. There’s pain. There are multiple emotions in these ads,” Williams says.

As her book explains, newspaper ads weren’t the only strategy used by African Americans. Sometimes they wrote to former owners for information or sought clues to a relative’s whereabouts from one of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up around the country after the Civil War. (Others, of course, took the opportunity to run away while slavery was still in place, often heading toward the plantation where they last saw a family member.)

Williams practiced law before becoming an historian, but she has always been interested in African-American history. “I write books because I want to know the black people in the past,” she explains. “Often we talk about slaves, and the word replaces the people.”

The Help Wanted notices provide a peek at people’s personal stories. The personalities of individuals come through even more in the letters and narratives that Williams also excerpts in her book, particularly those that refer to the loss of family members in childhood. Recalling how her mother was sold and taken from her when she was a child, Kate Drumgoold wrote, “The saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if anything that would direct me and I saw a clear place in the sky and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it 3 ½ years not knowing what that meant and it was there the whole time mother was gone.” Continue reading