Discoveries through Pictures: African Americans in the Civil War Era

The following is a guest post by Anastasia Sotiropoulos, the Prints & Photographs Division’s Stanford in Government Liljenquist Fellow.

Photograph shows formerly enslaved children Rosina Downs, Charles Taylor, and Rebecca Huger, each wrapped in a portion of the U.S. flag.

Our Protection. Photo by Charles Paxson, 1864. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.41752

I came into my time as the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division Intern unsure of what cartes de visite were, let alone the big stories these tiny 3.5-by-2.5 inch photo cards hold. As I explored the medium, especially the cartes de visite in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, I focused my research on Black Americans’ experiences during the Civil War. I was particularly drawn to the carte de visite “Our Protection” — a staged portrait of three children wrapped in sections of the American flag. Something about the children’s expressions and the symbolism of being cradled in patriotism drew me in. But what really struck me — confused me, even — was the description under the image: “Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. Slave Children from New Orleans.”

To me, based on their complexions, these children appeared white. But once I spoke with a Library staff member, who said the children were being portrayed as non-white, I became fascinated by the context of this photo: who staged it and for what purpose. I soon discovered that these formerly enslaved children were part of an entire “philanthropic photography” campaign. Along with two other children and three adults, Rosa, Charley, and Rebecca were freed in New Orleans in 1863. Colonel George Hanks served on a commission for the education and labor of freedpeople and took the group North that year, with help from the American Missionary Association and National Freedman’s Relief Association. The eight went on a tour of both public appearances and visits to photographers’ studios, where they sat for portraits like “Our Protection,” which were sold to raise money for new schools for freedpeople in Louisiana.

Photograph shows a full-length portrait of Isaac White and Rosina Downs, standing arm-in-arm, facing front.

Isaac & Rosa, slave children from New Orleans, / photographed by Kimball, 477 Broadway, N. Y. Photo by M. H. Kimball, 1863. William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs. //www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.11092/

What stands out to me about “Our Protection” and other images in its series — for example, one which shows six-year-old Rosa locking arms with Isaac — is how the subjects likely had little agency over how they were portrayed. Without getting too into whether children can consent to photos, it’s safe to say they didn’t understand how they were being used in a very nuanced campaign: one by abolitionists to, arguably, make slavery something members of a white-identifying Northern audience could relate to. As historian Mary Niall Mitchell writes in American Quarterly, “the supposed distance (both geographical and racial) that separated Northerners from Southern slavery’s evils must have shrunk considerably at the sight of little Rosa.” By locking arms with a Black boy, she confirmed to audiences that she was not white in the way they may have assumed she was; she had once been enslaved. Mitchell goes on to suggest that while white abolitionist writers could hypothesize about what slavery could be like for themselves or their kids, Rosa’s photo introduced something new — something real, and thus more frightening.

The photos prompted me to ponder the intentions of those who distributed the photos and those who bought them. While many were likely signaling their support for abolition by buying them, I wonder how many were also protecting their white privilege by distancing themselves from the experiences of those portrayed in the photographs. To me, it’s deeply concerning that something has to personally affect one’s group — or a group that looks like one’s group — for them to care; masking white privilege as abolition seems to be the epitome of that.

When historians look back at today’s activism, how much of it will be viewed as performative? People participating to say they did, but for all the wrong reasons? For reasons that, in the end, only work to benefit themselves? If there’s anything I’ve learned during my time at the Prints & Photographs Division, it’s that historical photos make us reflect not only on the past, but also on the present — how will the present be viewed in the future?

Bibliography:

  • Collins, Kathleen. “The Camera as An Instrument Of Persuasion: Studies of 19th Century Propaganda Photography.” Ph.D. dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1985.
  • Mitchell, Mary Niall. “’Rosebloom and Pure White,’ Or So It Seemed.” American Quarterly 54, No. 3 (September 2002): 369-410. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30042226

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