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.
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.
Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, c. 1861. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., http://www.virginiamemory.org.
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.
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.
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: http://southernspaces.org/2011/scales-intimate-and-sprawling-slavery-emancipation-and-geography-marriage-virginia#sthash.Swa0Tioc.dpuf
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 southernspaces.org is using it to discuss marriages and spatial arrangements during the Civil War.
Daguerreotype of a New Orleans woman with her slave in the mid 19th century.
The sweetness of this child’s face touches my heart. On historytoday.com 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?