Sojourner Truth and the Power of a Portrait

A photograph of Sojourner Truth, possibly taken in 1863

A pistol. A pipe. A musical instrument. Portrait photographs taken during the Civil War often include props or other objects that may have had personal meaning to the people in front of the camera. A photograph of the abolitionist and suffrage activist Sojourner Truth that appears in the Library’s newest Primary Source Set for educators, “Civil War Images: Depictions of African Americans in the War Effort,” provides an opportunity to discover the questions that the objects in a portrait can raise about the message that image might have been meant to convey.

By the mid-1860s, Sojourner Truth was a well-known public figure. For nearly two decades, the traveling preacher, who escaped slavery in New York as a young woman, had toured the nation spreading the gospel and denouncing slavery. To fund her public speaking tours, Truth sold cartes de visite–pocket-sized, affordable photographs–of herself, some including the motto ”I sell the shadow to support the substance.”

Many of these portraits feature straightforward poses of Sojourner Truth seated or standing, sometimes with knitting materials, a book, or a vase with flowers. In this portrait, however, Truth is holding something much more personal: a small photograph enclosed in a case.

The photograph is a portrait of James Caldwell, one of Sojourner Truth’s grandchildren. An early enlistee in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Caldwell was taken prisoner by the Confederates and spent years in prisoner-of-war camps, his fate unknown to his family. “I can only trust him in the hands of the good God,” his grandmother wrote to a friend in 1864.

During the war, Sojourner Truth worked to recruit African American men to fight in the Union army, as well as raising funds for supplies for the troops, and this carte de visite may have served as a reminder of the possibility and the necessity of African American uniformed service in the battle for the end of American slavery. It may also have reminded its viewers, as it was passed from hand to hand during the years in which nothing was known of James Caldwell’s fate, of the sacrifice that that battle often required.

Introduce the portrait to students, allow time to study it, and then ask them to describe it to a partner. Ask them to speculate on who might be in the portrait and before you share the information in the item record. How does that affect their thinking? Based on that additional information, why might she have had the portrait made? How does this portrait compare to others of her?

Civil War portraits with props or meaningful objects can be found in the online collections of the Library of Congress. Invite students to explore the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs and to select one or more posed portraits from the collection. Ask students to focus on any objects with the person. What might these objects tell a viewer about what was important to the person? If your students could only have their photograph taken once, what objects would they choose to be photographed with?

Please share their discoveries in the comments.

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