The faces of emancipation from slavery to the 1930s

CorrespondentFebruary 23, 2013 

  • Nonfiction Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer

    Temple University Press, 223 pages

In April 1863, just months after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Louis Manigault, a wealthy and prominent slaveholder, prepared a handwritten “Wanted” notice about Dolly, one of his slaves who had freed herself by running away from his Augusta, Ga., home.

At the top of the $50 reward notice, Manigault pasted a carte-de-visite image (a small photograph pasted on paper) of Dolly, her head wrapped in a white kerchief. Manigault described Dolly as “rather good looking,” adding that that she possessed a “fine set of teeth.” He noted that she “hesitates somewhat when spoken to.” A house servant, Dolly had “never changed owner” and “had been enticed off by some White Man.”

In “Envisioning Emancipation,” historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, who teach at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, respectively, use images of Dolly and more than 150 other enslaved and freed black persons from the 1850s through the 1930s to document African-Americans too often excluded or erased from the written historical record. Their deeply researched book – part narrative and part photographic catalog – underscores the varying circumstances under which the blacks were photographed and the diverse purposes the images served.

Their book raises the intriguing question: “What did freedom look like?”

Willis and Krauthamer arrange their narrative and photographs chronologically, documenting the varied ways that black Americans protested against slavery, struggled to achieve and protect their freedom, and interpreted emancipation’s legacy. Their book includes historic images of emancipation-era blacks – free black and slave artisans, women and children, chimney sweeps, cooks, gardeners, solders and washerwomen. Collectively, they capture how Americans of the freedom generation participated in emancipation but also celebrated, created monuments, preserved memory and honored family, friendships and work.

For example, the carte-de-visite photograph of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth chronicles the story of probably the first black woman to use photographs to construct and record a self-image. Truth sold copies of the photograph to support herself and to finance the abolitionist crusade. The caption reads: “I sell the Shadow to Support the Substance, Sojourner Truth.”

Another seemingly ubiquitous carte-de-visite print, “The Scourged Back” (1863), graphically showed the thick keloid scars on ex-slave Private Gordon’s back, the result of frequent whippings by his master. This image became a staple of the antislavery propaganda campaign and frequently appears in textbooks today. The New York Independent, an abolitionist newspaper, suggested the print “should be multiplied by 100,000 and scattered over the states. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. (Harriet Beecher) Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye.”

The well-known 20th-century photographer Richard Avedon’s portrait of the elderly William Casby connects the emancipation and civil rights eras. Born a slave in Louisiana in 1863 or 1864, Casby met Avedon in 1963 while the latter toured the South to photograph key figures in the civil rights movement, a collaborative project with James Baldwin. According to Willis and Krauthamer, Avedon’s mug-shot-like photograph of Casby challenges viewers to “read” into the image the subject’s “lived experience and humanity.” They consider it “anchored in a history of generalizations and assumptions about black men.”

Though valuable as a photographic documentary, “Envisioning Emancipation” falls short of explaining how and why the photographers and their subjects constructed many of the images – their framing, poses and props. For all their richness, the photographs catalogued by Willis and Krauthamer tend to offer little more than mere snapshots of how Dolly and others caught in the emancipation process pictured freedom.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC-Charlotte. His latest book is “Seeing the New South: Race and Place in the Photographs of Ulrich Bonnell Philips” (with Patricia Bellis Bixel).

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