'Telling the Story to the Eye'
Visualizing the Unspeakable in the White Slaves Photographs of 1863-4 Part I: Objective Sensationalism
Anjuli J. Lebowitz
This article is one of a series of essays addressing art as seen through the eyes of four budding scholars. Art history graduate students at Boston University, they are interested in exploring the uncharted bounds of African American and African Disporan visual culture.
On January 30, 1864 Harper’s Weekly published a double-page spread of a group portrait of five children and three adults, captioned “Emancipated Slaves—White and Colored,” as part of a publicity campaign to raise funds for schools for recently emancipated slaves in New Orleans. Just over a year after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued and less than a decade after the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, this engraving engaged the fraught debates over the future of freed slaves. Based upon an albumen print by New-York-based Myron H. Kimball, the group portrait was part of a series photographs, mostly cartes de visite, which were sold by the National Freedman’s Relief Association. The campaign, often referred to as the White Slaves campaign, took the group, escorted by Colonel George Hanks, commander of the Corps d’Afrique, and Philip Bacon of New Orleans, to Philadelphia in 1863 and New York in 1864, where they were photographed at multiple studios, including those of Kimball, Charles Paxson, and J. E. McClees.
The campaign’s organizer, the National Freedman’s Relief Association, founded in May of 1863, had carefully selected a mix of mulatto and black children along with black adults to represent the nearly 1,500 students attending seven newly founded schools in New Orleans. For sale from the National Freedman’s Relief Association’s offices on Mercer Street in New York City, these photographs would not have been viewed in a predetermined manner. Patrons may have bought as many or as few of the images of varying or repetitive subject matter as they saw fit. They may have passed them on to friends, shared them with politically like-minded acquaintances, or stored them in personal albums. The intention of the project was printed on the verso of each: “The nett proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks.” Though many uncertainties remain about the photographs’ producers and the subjects themselves, what is clear is that these images were created for a specific purpose at a particular, historically potent moment.
By disseminating images of seemingly white children, the National Freedman’s Association alluded to the horrific conditions of slavery while creating a palatable image of emancipation for anxious audiences. These were not the lustful, violent slaves of planters’ nightmares, but rather docile, sentimentalized children and patient, pious adults. The pointed use of children naturalizes stereotypes of mixed-raced individuals. As historian Walter Johnson has described, frailty, delicacy and submissiveness were all characteristics identified by slave traders and buyers as inherent to the special status and high value of light-skinned slaves on the slave market. These qualities could be read on the bodies of children without the artifice of costuming or attributes that an adult subject might have necessitated.
At the same time, these images participated in the wider discourse of photography’s indexical relationship to nature and its ability to reveal the unseen. The pale bodies of these young children visualized miscegenation, which was and would continue to be a great source of anxiety in the wake of emancipation, but the effects of which had primarily been hidden from public scrutiny before the war. Moreover, through this campaign, miscegenation resulting in white slaves would be constructed as part of the history and not the future of a post-Civil-War United States. With the end of slavery legally decreed, abolitionism would need to find a new cause to champion. Depicted as eager to learn, patriotic, and pious, these New Orleanian children would also be used to vindicate the much-maligned abolitionist movement, which had been considered a radical political third rail in the struggle to preserve the Union in the late 1850s.
The “Awful Logic of the System”
Kimball’s photographic group portrait, Emancipated Slaves—White and Colored is divided into two rows: one of the three adults, Wilson Chinn, Mary Johnson, and Robert Whitehead, in the background; and a second comprising the five children, Charles “Charley” Taylor, Augusta Broujey, Isaac White, Rebecca Huger, and Rosa Downs in the foreground. Shown in a typical studio setting, the group is evenly spaced so that all individuals are clearly visible in the composition. While the adults are shown in attire that would indicate their professions, such as workman, cook, and military enlistee, the children are in their Sunday best, with suits for the young boys and off-the-shoulder, puff-sleeved dresses typical of New Orleans for the girls. Each member of the group stands and engages the viewer through direct but non-threatening gazes. Age and height appear to be the primary organizing principles of this relatively conventional photograph. This is appropriate, as none of the individuals were related to one another, other than that they all had been born slaves and currently lived in New Orleans, which had been occupied since late 1861 by General Benjamin Franklin Butler, architect of the contraband policy. Copies of this photograph were sold for one dollar apiece.
In the translation of Kimball’s photograph by a Harper’s Weekly wood engraver, there is a noticeable shift in composition. Isaac is pushed back from the center foreground to align him more closely with the adults, whose skin tone he shares. The organization of the image becomes dictated by phenotype instead of age and height. Rather than one evenly spaced group, the engraver has created two overlapping groups of four, filling in the lower half of Mary Johnson’s body to give her more prominence in the composition. She forms a bridge between what upon first glance can be read as two nuclear family units, with Mary performing as surrogate mother to both. Situated between the light-skinned Augusta and the dark-skinned Isaac, Mary, it is implied, could have given birth to either child in the dysfunctional, secretive domestic slave system that permitted slave owners to sexually exploit black women, as has been described by scholars such as Carby and Saidiya Hartmann.
Racism, along with economic interests of plantation owners and manufacturing interests, shielded slavery from federal intervention and eradication. Only with the advent of the Civil War and the stark realization that political compromise was never truly an option with slave states, could the abolitionist movement voice its concerns unfettered. With its strong support of the abolitionist cause, Harper’s Weekly was especially well-positioned to air the movement’s grievances. Adopting a moralizing tone, the periodical describes what it considered one of the greatest offenses of the system of slavery:
A terrible illustration of this truth of the outrage of all natural human affections we present today in the engravings, from photographs, of slave children upon page 69 of this paper. These are, of course, the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations. They are as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children. Yet the “chivalry,” the “gentlemen” of the slave states, by the awful logic of the system, doom them all to the fate of swine; and, so far as they can, the parents and brothers of these little ones destroy the light of humanity in their souls.
The author views the existence of white slaves as vindication of the abolitionist movement, which had been silenced by slave owners and their allies preceding the war. He does not focus on Mary’s hypothetical role as mother to children by both white and black men, but rather more obliquely to the existence of “offspring of white fathers” condemned to slavery and the “outrage of all natural human affections” which distorted and corrupted the institution of marriage and the legitimate children born within. In addition, he condemns the “logic” of the slave system, which legally categorizes all children born to slave mothers automatically as slaves, sometimes in contradiction to the station of the father. When all other avenues of property inheritance were determined paternally, this maternal bequest stood out.
This engraving, borrowing the verity of Kimball’s photograph, is presented as evidence in the case against slavery and for the universal emancipation of slaves—black and white. In a separate letter written by C. C. Leigh of the National Freedman’s Relief Association to the editor of Harper’s Weekly, each participant receives a short description, serving to individualize and historicize their circumstances, as well as to demonstrate the need for their education. The abuse Mary received is enumerated here:
Mary Johnson was [a] cook in her master’s family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master.
The account of Mary’s scars and cuts are reminiscent of descriptions included in runaway slave broadsides, the text of which focused on unique signifiers upon a slave’s body while utilizing a stock image to portray them. It is notable that Leigh enumerates and classifies Mary’s wounds by who gave them to her, highlighting the cruelty inflicted by both genders of the white plantation class. Outside of the typical zone of corporeal punishment—the back—the cuts on Mary’s arm inflicted by her mistress are in a less obvious location, lending them a more pernicious character. The traditional construction of the submissive, pious plantation mistress in contradistinction to the constructed lesser, chattel-like slave woman, is undermined by Leigh’s description of Mary’s injuries. Through the cuts on Mary’s arm, southern (and therefore Confederate) femininity, as exemplified by white plantation mistresses, is demonstrated to be corrupted through their participation in the merciless property-based system of slavery.
1. "Emancipated Slaves -- White and Colored," Harper's Weekly (January 30, 1864): 56-7.
2. Collections that hold these photographs include: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.; The Library Company of Philadelphia; the Women's History Archive, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; The Friends' Historical Library of Swarthmore College; the New York Historical Society; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; The Pennsylvania State University Libraries; and the Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans.
3. Very little about these individual photographers is known at this time. See: Mary Niall Mitchell, "Rosebloom and Pure White, Or So It Seemed" in Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 51-90.
4. Kathleen C. Collins, "Portraits of Slave Children" History of Photography vol. 9, no. 3 (July-September 1985), 187. A discussion of this project also appears in Catherine Clinton, Civil War Stories (Athens, Georgia and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998).
5. For example, The Friends' Historical Library of Swarthmore College holds an album that belonged to the Quaker abolitionist, George Truman (1798-1877).
6. See: Johnson (1999).
7. For an overview of paintings dealing with miscegenation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries see: Judith Wilson, "Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Art" American Art, vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 88-107.
8. The contraband policy was instituted by General Butler when escaped slaves started seeking refuge at Union forts and camps. Because they were technically property being used to support the Confederacy, Butler reasoned that the Union could confiscate them as "contraband" property, much like guns or raw materials, effectively freeing any slave that could cross into Union territory.
9. Collins, "Portraits of Slave Children," 189.
10. Saidiya Hartmann, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
11. "Slave Children" Harper's Weekly vol. 8, no. 370 (January 30, 1864), 66.
12. Children always took the status of their mothers at the time of birth. Even if a woman was freed later, her children could still be legally held as property by her former owner.
13. C. C. Leigh, "White and Colored Slaves" Harper's Weekly vol. 8, no. 370 (January 30, 1864), 71.
14. See: Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000).
15. Carby, 20.