Portrait or Postcard? The Controversy over a “Rare” Photograph of Slave Children, Mary Niall Mitchell, History News Network, June 21, 2010.
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and even some experts, makes it clear that the picture of antebellum slavery most people hold in their heads is an outdated one.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 eBay for $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.”
Complete Text of article: Mary Niall Mitchell
Mary Niall Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. Her latest book, Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (NYU, 2008), is now available in paperback.
Top Image Source: University of New Orleans
Bottom Image Source: New York University Press