An Act of Violence

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Workin’ on the Railroad


railroad handsafrican american railroad workers manassas

The picture to the far left reminds me of a poem I used to know and can’t find called Hands.  The poem talks about all the things hands do that we often take for granted.  Here, African American hands build railroads in Virginia during the Civil War.

“Slavery is often thought of as a primarily agricultural phenomenon, but thousands of enslaved blacks worked on the railroads right up to and during the Civil War, grading lines, building bridges and blasting tunnels. They hauled timber, cut wood and shoveled dirt and stone. Skilled slaves, especially blacksmiths, stone masons and carpenters, worked on the railroads too.” (William G. Thomas, New York Times, online edition, February 10, 2012)

railroad workers

manassas railroad map

Above is a map of the major railroad lines of Virginia in 1862.  AL&H in purple, O&A in green, Manassas Gap in blue, and RF&P in white. (Source: Library of Congress)  When the war started many slaveholders sent their “property” to work on the lines.  In addition, railroad companies bought or hired thousands of enslaved people (paying the slaveholders) to serve as section hands.  Finally, during the war thousands of African American self-emancipators used the railroad lines to guide them north.


In August 1862, when the Union forces retreated back up the line toward Washington, black families went with them. Col. W.W. Wright, the engineer and superintendent of the United States Military Railroads, witnessed the evacuation: “The contrabands fairly swarmed about the Fredericksburg and Falmouth stations, and there was a continuous black line of men, women and children moving north along the [rail] road, carrying all their worldly goods on their heads. Every train running to Aquia was crowded with them.” According to Mrs. B.B. Wright, a slave-owner, well over 10,000 contrabands walked or rode on the tracks north toward freedom in one week.

(William G. Thomas, New York Times, online edition, February 10, 2012)









History Under Light


I never knew anything about Al Capone, the notorious gangster, except that he was a bad person, and that he was from Chicago, my hometown.  The other day I was searching for a photo related to slavery mind you and this extraordinary one, completely unrelated to slavery, came up.  It captured my attention instantly.  This is my matted version of Al Capone’s prison cell when he was at Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1929.  According to Wikipedia, “The warden and guards at ESP gave special consideration to Mr. Capone during his stay, permitting him to hang artwork, tables and lamps, a velvet duvet, comfortable chair and an expensive radio… Capone enjoyed listening to waltzes after dinner.”


I think about this photo, my version unmatted here, in the context of the unfairness of our current criminal justice system, where millions of African-Americans are incarcerated in disproportionate numbers and for disproportionate sentences as compared to whites for comparable offenses.

In terms of process, I created new layer for each item that I colored in the cell – the straight chair, rug, arm chair, bed, picture. I used the same layer for the hutch and end table. Since the hutch was much darker it just appears as a light stain, which was fine with me.  I used overlay on all items and color burned the arm chair and rug as well as the back lamp. I played with the opacity but liked the picture best at 100%.  Finally, I had to prepare the picture for the web.  I went into image size and made sure the picture wasn’t too big to upload (more than 3M) and I selected a medium jpeg.  I saved it into my picture folder and uploaded it to the blog from there.

While there was really no suitable “scene” in this picture for a vignette, I created the one above to illustrate the technique as required for this digital images class assignment.


This is the picture that I turned to black and white – so this is where I started. It looks bleaker than the color version, but still given the items in the room, luxurious by prison standards and by some home standards!

As instructed, I began the entire process by looking at the picture.  I really wanted to give the walls that interesting look as they have in the original picture below. I also wanted to retain the lighting glow – though I had some trouble with that as well.  I used curves to play with the tones, but still the light in my version is brighter than I wanted but better than my first version after the color burn.


This is one of the original color versions of the picture from the web.  My version does not look like this version for two reasons: 1) I chose a different color palate and cropped the picture differently, and 2) I’m just learning Photoshop and had trouble achieving some effects, like the light on the left wall and desk.  I tried burning the color on the walls but that placed odd looking orange smudges on the brown parts of the wall.

So all in all this was a time-consuming but great learning experience.  I am better able to use some of the Photoshop tools.  I’ll leave readers with this question: What can we collectively do to make sure that our justice system is fair for all.  Al Capone’s cell is symbolic of the inequalities that continue to exist.



‘Let the world see’

issac woodard

In Picturing the Past: Media History and Photography the authors write that photographs “are not mirrors of reality, but points of entry into an exploration into cultural experiences” that help to shape social discourse (10, 11).  And that equal to what is shown in a picture is what is not shown (104).

What is not shown in the the above photograph of Sergeant Issac Woodard Jr.  is the brutal beating he endured at the hands of South Carolina police on February 12, 1946, less than three days after he was honorably discharged from serving in the Pacific during WWII.  He was decorated and in full uniform when they did it.  While at a Greyhound rest top traveling home to North Carolina to be with his family, Woodard asked the driver if there was time for him to use the restroom.  The driver reluctantly waited.  At the next stop, the driver called the police.  The officer who responded and used his nightstick to beat the soldier was Linwood Shull.  He was acquitted of the charges by an all white jury – the case unresolved even until today.  We can see the after effects of this tragedy, Woodard’s blindness, in this picture – but only if we know to interpret what we see in that way, otherwise he could just be wearing sunglasses.  There are other clues to what happened in the picture.  Read the text of the newspaper as it gets smaller.  “Eyes gouged out” will appear.  My stomach sank the first time I read that.

The authors also point up the importance of the context of social relations.  This was the Jim Crow South where blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect and where few whites were ever held responsible for their actions.  It was a place and a time where service to country mattered little to none if you were black.

The authors of Picturing also talk about the ways that photographs help observers understand and remember the past. (98)   This is a picture of Woody Guthrie.  He wrote a song about the tragedy called The Blinding of Issac Woodard.  So lest anyone infer from this article that whites were always the bad guy, not so.  But because Guthrie is not pictured with Woodard, with an appropriate caption, we can’t know from this picture that he was one of many whites who were outraged by the actions of Shull.


General Eisenhower, in reference to atrocities committed by the Nazis in Europe during WWII, called for the media to show the pictures — “Let the world see” he proclaimed.  He did far less to draw attention to the abuses and murder African-Americans suffered during training in the South and upon their arrival home.  Seeing may not always be believing, but at least photographs are a start in helping to make visible what others might prefer to hide.


Unusual Depictions of Civil-War-Era Black Women

Cutting to the chase, I think most of these images were coerced or co-opted in some way.  Having Their Say means being the eye behind the lens.

woman with flag

Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Patriotism.  That’s a good place to start since it’s often contested terrain.  What does it mean to this woman to be patriotic?  This is an Ambrotype of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, c. 1865 in Richmond, Virginia.  The Museum secured it in 2005. The curator at NMAH, Shannon Thomas Perich, used the picture as part of an article called Flag of Freedom.  He points out that this picture was taken at a time when not many black women’s pictures were being formally taken. He poses these questions:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

I’m thinking about our recent class discussion where we talked about digging into the context of a photograph.  I’m wondering if this woman pinned the flag on herself before arriving at the studio or did someone there ask her to wear it for the picture?  If she wore the flag of her own volition she might have been claiming her freedom, which would come at least in part in December 1865.  This woman is likely one of thousands of enslaved people who escaped to Union lines and were put to work as “contraband of war.”  I’ve never liked that term.  Contraband generally refers to smuggling goods or merchandise.  Enslaved people seeking freedom hardly seems in the same category.  It’s another way of dehumanizing a group of people.  I think the flag was pinned on her.  I don’t think a woman would pin something so close, practically on her breast.  That’s something a man might do – a man who is also a photographer or a man who feels dominion over this woman.  I wish I knew her name.

hiding woman

Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, c. 1861. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.,

I have such empathy for this woman.  She is witnessing massive slave-trading at this place.  Although she is clearly standing and cooperating with the photographer, she also seems to be  hiding, physically behind the tree, and also emotionally.  I don’t get the sense that she wants to be known by the probably foreign-like people taking her picture? Does she work at the slave pen? It doesn’t look like she’s about to be sold with her basket? I wonder what’s inside.

woman and men with guns

This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.  Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

Thank you, Megan, for finding this picture.  It’s extraordinary.  First let me tell you what they say this photograph is about – and then I’ll tell you what I think of what they say.  They say this is a cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862. “Rockwell and Berch traveled the one hundred miles to Coffin’s house at a rapid pace. The party arrived safely and spent two days at the Coffin residence. Before sending the girl off to Racine (where the soldiers had friends ready to take the girl in), however, they posed with her for the above daguerreotype, taken at the J. P. Ball Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati.” Okay, if anyone can explain to me why after having aided a teenage runaway the men would then pay and go into a studio and take a picture with a gun pointed at her head I might consider this story.  Just because something is documented doesn’t mean it’s true – even if it is from the Library of Congress. 

group enslaved

James F. Gibson, A Group of “Contrabands,” 1862. Emancipation-era families, Foller farm in Cumberland County, Virginia. Courtesy the Library of Congress. See more at:

The next time you hear the word “contraband” think families.  This picture may look familiar because it’s on the Internet. How does your impression of the scene change when you look at the same image below it? What effect does color have on the tone of the picture? The website is using it to discuss marriages and spatial arrangements during the Civil War.

group enslaved color

Daguerreotype of a New Orleans woman with her slave in the mid 19th century.

woman with black child slave

The sweetness of this child’s face touches my heart. On John Spicer used the picture in an article where he wrote that slavery was the key factor in starting the Civil War.  The partial article on this website was not very insightful but I couldn’t resist using this picture. The little girl looks like she is hoping beyond hope for a grandma. The girl is mixed race and this may well be her biological grandmother as well as her slave-owner.  The woman looks as though she is resigned to slavery – even though it has taken a toll on her as well- that and the war. I don’t see any connection between them.


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328. Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

Are words even needed?

The article admits that “The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well. But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy”

I agree with the conclusion but not the method. An animal head and we should not get “too hung up” about it? What’s up with that?




Coming to the Table Leads in Push for HR 40 Reparations Study

This was an historic week for Coming to the Table (, an organization I’m involved with composed of descendants of slaveholders and enslaved.  I spend a lot of time with historical records.  Fifty, 100 years from now people will look back to see what our organization did.  Most members will be long gone by then, but some people somewhere will look back to see where we stood.  They’ll search archival records and Internet data that will be stored who knows how by then.  They’ll look at pictures.  And hopefully, among all the material they will find Coming to the Table’s petition urging Congress to pass H.R. 40 – Rep. John Conyers’ bill to study the issue of reparations for U.S. slavery.  That document serves as a tangible symbol of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As many have commented, the damage created by slavery, Jim Crow, and subsequent forms of racial discrimination is too great to repair.  True.  Nonetheless, it is important that we help to make the case that this country’s wealth was made on the literal backs of enslaved women, men, and children and that the consequences are still reverberating in our communities today.  I learned a new and tragic phrase this morning – Hood Disease

I’d like to focus for a moment on the children.

I’m in graduate school and lately I’ve been studying aspects of the Civil War.  This is a remarkable picture of a Confederate officer with a young boy he owns.  He took the boy to war.  This boy could have been the only person this man owned, could have been one of dozens.  We may never know the child’s name (though I am trying).  What we can know is the magnitude of the crime committed against him as reflected in his very sad eyes.  And let’s not forget about the people who loved him.  What carnage did this child see?  And the man… what word would you choose to describe his expression, his attitude towards the boy, his world view?

confederate with enslaved boy

I’m taking a digital images class this summer so I’m thinking a lot in pictures these days.  Here we are in the sharecropping years.

sharecropping girls

Look how little the littlest girl is.  Maybe these girls are sisters, maybe not.  Their basket is full – meaning their bodies are tired – and they may not be finished for the day yet.  The youngest is looking back – maybe to her mama or grandma.  What might she have been saying?  And try reading the older girl’s face.  It looks to me as if she is resisting or resenting the camera, not just squinting from the sun.

Onto the Jim Crow era.  We’ve all seen this picture – Elizabeth Eckford desegregating Little Rock High School.  I had the occasion to meet Ms. Eckford while on a southern civil rights tour.  I was with a group of 50 high school students.  The young people asked her if she would do it again.  She almost shouted “Hell no!”  Eckford told the students that every day she was body-slammed against lockers and spit on.  Though she has gone on to do many great things in her life, Eckford said she’s never been the same since, mentally.  Look at the woman behind her, the viciousness of her expression.  Remember James Meredith and Ole Miss?  What did this hostile treatment do to students’ sense of feeling safe in the world for years to come?

Elizabeth eckford

And to poverty right here in the grand old U.S. of A.  This mother’s pain is palpable.  She might be thinking: Where is the next meal coming from?  How am I going to pay these bills?  I saw the same look on my own mother’s face when I was growing up.


And finally, today’s school-to-prison-pipeline.  How many young lives are going to be wasted by focusing on prosecution rather than prevention?  Is this picture silly or what?  It might be ridiculous but the fact is these things happen all the time.  The criminal justice system is feeding off our children and people are making big bucks.

school to prison pipeline

Studying the ongoing impact of slavery, segregation and racialized policies towards African-Americans in this country is a small step, but it’s a needed one because it opens the widow to discussion.  When we have that discussion, remember the children.  Let the fresh air in.


Check out CTTT member Dionne Ford Kurtti’s blog post on reparations at Finding Josephine at embed]

Visit Coming to the Table’s BitterSweet slavery blog at