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Portrait or Postcard? The Controversy over a “Rare” Photograph of Slave Children

For those of us who work with historical photographs (particularly images from the nineteenth century, when the medium was still in its infancy) there are few things more thrilling than stumbling on an image we didn’t know existed.  But finding and then identifying historical photographs with any certainty, particularly the subjects in them, is tricky business.  Retrieving the story behind the image—who took it, of whom, and why—can often be near impossible.

So I was surprised last week to see an AP story about a “rare” photograph of slave children.  The accompanying image—purportedly of two boys, either enslaved or just recently freed, from North Carolina taken in the 1860s dressed in ragged clothes, seated on a wooden barrel, posed for the camera—intrigued me for several reasons.  For one, my own reading of the image was quite different from what was described in the wire article and subsequent reports (recent sleuthing by collectors supports my suspicions, as I’ll explain).  Second, the eagerness to accept the authenticity of this image as a reflection of daily life in the South in this era is based on, at best, a shallow reading of the history of black children in the photography of this period.  Finally, the shock the image of “slave children” seemed to give reporters and readers, and even some experts, makes it clear that the picture of antebellum slavery most people hold in their heads is an outdated one.  If they imagine Southern plantations were sustained largely by the sweat and blood by enslaved adults, the work of recent historians has brought another view to light, one in which young people made up the majority of the enslaved.

The basic story about the discovery and subsequent dispute over the photograph’s provenance, is as follows.  A collector named Keya Morgan recently purchased the album containing the photograph, found in an attic in North Carolina, for $30,000.  He also purchased, at the same sale, for $20,000, a deed of sale for a slave named John, valued at $1,150 in 1854.  The deed seems to have been represented to Morgan as the sale document for one of the boys in the photograph, but this link seems unlikely.  The price is awfully high for an infant in that period, which is what either boy in the photograph would have been at the time of sale if the picture had been taken in the 1860s.  Subsequent digging by the AP and others found what seems to be the original petition for the sale in the Digital Archive of Slavery, which suggests that the slave John, mentioned in the deed, was twenty-seven or twenty-eight in 1854.

Bringing further attention to the photograph was the initial attribution of the image to someone in Matthew Brady’s photographic studio (the caption beneath Morgan’s photograph reads simply “Brady”).  If a link to the famous Civil War photographer could be confirmed, perhaps it could justify the high sale price.  Web searches by a blogger named Kate Marcus and a collector named Sherry Howard, however, found other copies of this image in stereoscope format (meant to be seen through a 3-D like viewfinder popular from the mid- to late nineteenth century).  One copy recently sold on eBayfor $163, and another is in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  Both are attributed to J.N. Wilson, a photographer active in Savannah, Georgia in the 1870s and 1880s, and seem to have been part of a series of “Plantation Scenes.”  The caption in the NYPL catalog (which presumably appears on card’s verso) reads:  “Plantation Scene; Happy Little Nigs.”

A curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. who initially supported the possible Brady studio attribution, has since reconsidered.  Although Brady did make stereoscopic images, he told a reporter for USA Today’s online magazine, this probably was not his handiwork:  “I took it at face value.  But I should have known.”  The AP has since filed a follow-up piece in which the buyer, Morgan, continues to defend his story, stating that his is the original and others are copies (supporting the idea that Wilson borrowed the “Brady” image and claimed it as his own) and maintaining a possible link between the photograph and the deed of sale.  It is also possible, however, that the Brady studio borrowed from an original of Wilson and affixed Brady’s name to it.  In the interest of selling postcards, attributions in the nineteenth century could often be multiple and indeterminate.

My own first response to the photograph and initial reports about it was frustration.  The assumption seemed to be that since these children were unknown—that they do not “exist in history” as Morgan put it—that there could be no larger context for a photograph of black children that needed to be understood, and that this was simply an authentic snapshot of their daily lives.  My experience with such photographs in the archives, however, suggests otherwise.

Technically, the photograph looks more 1870s or 1880s than 1860s. Though I have seen earlier staged outdoor portraits of adults, most images of freedchildren taken in the 1860s were indoor studio portraits commissioned by Northern missionaries in the South or private individuals (often Union soldiers) who took an interest in a particular child.  Often these photos were for propaganda or fundraising purposes, and frequently they featured ragged slave children transformed into neat and tidy workers under the influence of Northern benevolent societies.  An example of this sort of image, from 1864, is in the holdings of the Virginia Historical Society.

It was not until the 1870s that southern outdoor scenes—often “plantation scenes”—became common.  By then, the “Old South” was already becoming the creation of post-Civil War nostalgia, North and South.  Tourists and curious Northerners could buy stereoscopic postcards for a vivid glimpse at life in the Southern states.  These picturesque vignettes frequently featured black children.  To many nineteenth century viewers poor black children represented a sympathetic, often comical, and unthreatening view of the newly freed black population.  If the photograph in question is the work of J.N. Wilson, it would fit this pattern.  In fact, it wouldn’t be Wilson’s only foray into this genre of child photography.  His stereoscope of“Chimney Sweeps,” for instance, also taken in Savannah in the 1870s, and in the NYPL’s digital collection, is in this same vein.

If we look to the photograph itself for clues to its origin, it seems the boys in the photo are posed in front of a stand of banana trees, turned brown by a frost, and there is a live banana tree in the distance (other critics have suggested the backdrop is sugarcane, but bananas seem more likely to me).  To concede a point in favor of the North Carolina connection, it is possible that the photograph was taken in coastal North Carolina—the deed of sale for John was from Brunswick County, which isn’t too far from the coast.  But Savannah’s climate (to support the Wilson attribution) is friendlier to tropical flora.

Of course, this level of scrutiny obscures the surviving view we do have of two black boys who lived in the immediate aftermath of chattel slavery, who no doubt had their own story to tell—the unfamiliar story that so moved Mr. Morgan and those who read the first news reports.  Indeed, what is most frustrating about working with images like this one is that the intent of the photographer can overpower evidence of the experience of the subjects themselves, particularly when those photographed were so young.  We must even question the authenticity of their clothes, since we have evidence of nineteenth century photographers dressing working-class children more tattered garb than they actually wore, for visual effect or propaganda purposes.  Given the poverty in which so many former slaves lived, these could well have been their everyday clothes, but we cannot say for sure.

What we do know is that in 1860, more than half of the enslaved population was under the age of twenty.  This simple statistic taps millions of stories still needing to be told by historians.  But many of them have been told.  It is up to us to listen.  With careful reading, we can find them in the narratives of ex-slaves (collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s) most of whom were children at the start of the Civil War.  And with rigorous interpretation and cross-documentation, we can find stories in photographs.  With texts as well as images, our understanding of the history slavery and emancipation in the United States, and children’s important role within it, becomes a little clearer.

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