Friday, June 11, 2010

Can You Feel Their Eyes on You? Rare Photo of Slave Children Found in Attic

Can you feel their eyes on you?

As someone whose research focuses almost exclusively on race and its relationship to power in this society, I have, by necessity, become hardened and numb to certain realities. On one hand, I would hope that this makes me an effective teacher because I want to get the story right, as well as help students understand that emotions matter--but not at the expense of rigor and precision. Thus, the "science" in social science. Reflexively, this tendency to be hardened and not surprised by the realities of white supremacy (and frankly the capacity for human beings to be barbaric and cruel more generally) can also make it difficult to connect to a young student raised in the glee of post-racial, post-Civil Rights America where "race no longer matters." As teachers, we have to shatter their naivete (because ultimately that is what education ought to be), but it brings no joy to do so.

We, those folks who study identity politics--especially where those politics are personal--do indeed learn to wear a mask. But in private, when faced with an image such as these two young boys, caught in the jaws and gears of a cruel system where their humanity was reduced to property, a mere check on a ledger sheet, one cannot help but to be moved.

This photo also makes me think of how shockingly ignorant most Americans are of the day to day realities of chattel slavery in the Americas. Imagine, if we are still negotiating those divisions in the heart of our democracy today, what it must have felt like for those black folk struggling against the slaveocracy when it was a looming present? In turn, can we even begin to comprehend the magnitude of the psychological wage which slavery must have paid the white soul?

That heretofore ambiguous wage is partly revealed in this photo. It must have been grand comfort to know that by simple virtue of color and birth that one's children would never be reduced to chattel or property, their photos and papers of sale to be discovered in some dusty attic centuries later. Ultimately, the Black Freedom Struggle is a triumph. But, that triumph did not come without a great deal of pain and personal tragedy. We often emphasize the former, but for fear of dropping the mask, the latter often goes unacknowledged.

The full story follows courtesy of Salon:

Rare Photo of Slave Children Found in Attic

A haunting 150-year-old photo found in a North Carolina attic shows a young black child named John, barefoot and wearing ragged clothes, perched on a barrel next to another unidentified young boy.

Art historians believe it's an extremely rare Civil War-era photograph of children who were either slaves at the time or recently emancipated.

The photo, which may have been taken in the early 1860s, was a testament to a dark part of American history, said Will Stapp, a photographic historian and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery's photographs department at the Smithsonian Institution.

"It's a very difficult and poignant piece of American history," he said. "What you are looking at when you look at this photo are two boys who were victims of that history."

In April, the photo was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, accompanied by a document detailing the sale of John for $1,150, not a small sum in 1854.

New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document. Morgan said the deceased owner of the home where the photo was found was thought to be a descendant of John.

A portrait of slave children is rare, Morgan said.

"I buy stuff all the time, but this shocked me," he said.

What makes the picture an even more compelling find is that several art experts said it was created by the photography studio of Mathew Brady, a famous 19th-century photographer known for his portraits of historical figures such as President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Stapp said the photo was probably not taken by Brady himself but by Timothy O'Sullivan, one of Brady's apprentices. O'Sullivan took a multitude of photos depicting the carnage of the Civil War.

In 1862, O'Sullivan famously photographed a group of some of the first slaves liberated after Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said.

The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn't widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long.

"To me, it's such a moving and astonishing picture," he said.

Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery.

"I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn't pick or choose," said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. "This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young."

For now, Morgan said, he is keeping the photo in his personal collection, but he said he has had an inquiry to sell the photo to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said he is considering participating in the creation of a video documentary about John.

"This kid was abused and mistreated and people forgot about him," Morgan said. "He doesn't even exist in history. And to know that there were a million children who were like him. I've never seen another photo like that that speaks so much for children."


Anonymous said...

I don't know what it means and I don't know what I see in their eyes and I just don't know. The world is just crazy.

Sometimes your blog makes me mad and sometimes it makes me laugh and smile and most of the time I just feel like a digital persona that is communicating with other digital personas and I feel worthless.

There are days when I feel like black people are my brothers and sisters and there's days when I feel like they're looking into my soul and I don't like it one bit.

It's just sad- that's all. Everything is.


Chris Albertson said...

A thought-provoking photo. I am reminded every day of the shameful period in my former country's (Denmark's) history as I systematically go through records kept by the Danish government and slave owners of St. Croix. I am one of several people who are translating and entering the data into records that will be made available online, to help researchers and people seeking to unravel their family history. My phase of this work reveals little about the people themselves. There are no photos, but the movements and transactions speak volumes while notes and letters left by slave owners bring us a more focused picture. Some of my colleagues are tracing individual lives and that can be a painful but necessary journey. said...

Very good.

chaunceydevega said...

@JT--That was raw and honest...and appreciated. We are all in this together.

@Chris--That sounds like fascinating work. What have you learned so far? If you ever want to write a piece for us on what you have learned/felt/seen etc. or even a series of updates that would be most welcome.

Chris Albertson said...

Thank you. If I come up with anything that might be of interest, I'll run it past you.


Anonymous said...

chauncey: I somehow found you guys a couple weeks ago while I was searching Boondocks stuff and I've been reading ever since. All three(?) of you are great.

We are all in this together, absolutely.


Anonymous said...

Very powerful photo. I'm having the same reaction as I did when I first went to the museum of American history in DC and visited the slavery section. The shackles made the most impact. Seeing them in person.

Being an emotional, visual person, I couldn't imagine being in them, nor putting someone else in them. I always thought slave owners were monsters, but the shackles just flamed that view even more.

And when I'd go back (used to live there and would visit with company), I'd always get tense seeing that familiar corner, recoiling at what I knew was there.

It is one thing to read, know, hear about the past. But these things really help make it real (like the pile of shoes at the Holocaust museum). And it makes me want to share it with everyone, so they may have a similar reaction, so they'll reflect on their own prejudices (we all have them, but how we let them govern us is the key).

-white lady who comments from time to time

Lola Gets said...

I first caught this article elsewhere on the Web, and as a historian, it resonated with me in many ways, and has left me with many questions.

Why was this photo and documents placed on the market? Why werent the descendants of the original owner of the house interested in keeping such valuable personal history? Is it a money thing? Were they in dire straights and needed the funds, or were they unaware of the treasure they possessed? Why was it sold to a private collector and not sold/donated to a museum?

As you can see, this article left me with several unanswered questions, lol.

I count myself as one of the fortunate, because I have many mid-to-late 19th century pictures, daguerreotypes and tintypes of my ancestors, so I can actually hold my family, and my nation's history in my hands. But I am unfortunate, as the people who hold the oral history are all deceased, and NO ONE thought to accurately - and clearly - identify just who these people are (DOCUMENT YOUR PHOTOS, PEOPLE, LOL!).

Well, please stop by my blog in the future, as I am scanning all of these photos - I have thousands of them - and posting them online!


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

The kid on the left looks like he could be a younger version Lil Wayne in a different time and place.

Reminds me of all the untapped talent of that cruel time period... music, science, inventions, the list is endless. Instead, our ancestors were used as beasts of burden. Tragic, and tragic still because it still continues in a different way.

Imani Asako said...

I am a political scientist and a politician in North Carolina. Today in my role as an elected official I had the pleasure of going on a farm tour across my county.

This photo and your post remind me of a Century Farm we visited today and the family we spoke to. The farm is the only farm left in our county that has belonged to a black family for over 100 years.

Knowing that the patriarch of that family worked to the bone to make sure his children and grandchildren never had to be under the whip or had to rely on others to take care of themselves was really powerful.

In that photo and in the eyes of those kids I can only imagine the feelings and dreams that they had that might have never come true.

Today we asked the gentleman why his family had not been tempted to sell the 600 acres that their patriarch had purchased over 100 years ago and his reply was that his granddaddy had walked almost 15 miles to get the deed to that land and that every body in his family was born on the homestead. So that while many people don't have a place to call home, his family does and that the roots on that land grow deep.

This photo of these forgotten children who suffered under an unjust system, and having been on the property of a family that has worked hard to maintain the dream of a man who made sure his family would never have to suffer the way he did, keeps me going in this field and inspires me to be better every day.

I'm proud to be black and educated and humbled by the sacrifices of so many that got me to where I am today. Thanks for bringing this article to your blog and for your post!

RiPPa said...

After looking at the pic, I felt moved. I felt the need to do something. I felt the need to donate some money to help those two starving African kids in that pic.

Now I'm usually skeptical when I see commercials like this one which features a very humble sounding white guy pleading for 30 cents a day to feed them. What can I say, the absence of flies around the faces of the white guy makes me this way.

Yep, they did a good job with this commercial; yes, it was very effective. Hopefully 6they get my money.

Uh, hold up...wait... this pic was taken in America? Are you kidding me? Well no wonder they look like they're disappointed that daddy had to pawn the Playstation 3 to buy crack!

Anonymous said...

This a wonderful historic photo.

Why you have to make up a story of abuse and mistreatment and victimization when there is no evidence to support that from this photo is beyond me.

The child on the left was named Johnson Smith. He was 8 years old in 1854 when this picture was taken. He was taught basic arithmetic and reading skills as a child. In 1865 after emancipation, at the age of 19 (everyone's birthday was 1/1), he moved to Easton, Illinois with two of his brothers. There he married Nina Summers and after three years of hard labor, he and his brothers bought a small farm and prospered. Their wives made pies that were sold at the local cafe and general store. Johnson and Nina had four daughters. One of those daughters married a young man who worked on a street bricklaying crew that moved from town to town following jobs. After eight years he became assistant foreman. These were usually bigger towns. In 1912 their family settled in Fort Worth, Texas. His name was Andrew Clayton. The Claytons had six children, three died at young ages. One moved to an area around Graham, Texas and worked at a mill and had a family. One died at the age of 32 in a fire in downtown Fort Worth, and the last, my grandmother, sired eight ranch hands that worked for the XIT ranch in North Texas.

Thank you to the United States of America for the freedoms we (currently) enjoy. If these two children had been born in any other country in this whole world, they would not have had the opportunities to succeed that they did.

And shame on you for making up such a negative story to attached to this picture.

chaunceydevega said...

Talk about timely. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not a troll looking for provocation, but rather that you are simply naive and misinformed...

Those happy little slaves. It was such a wonderful just system that gave free labor to white folks in exchange for travel visas for Africans. And we black folks should be so happy that the boat dropped us off in America!

I have something I was not going to post, now I am inspired.

thanks anon.


Anonymous said...

No I am not trolling for a fight. I am simply asking that we be "respectable negroes." We have thousands and thousands and thousands of facts on our side when discussing the atrocities of slavery. We do not need to weaken those facts by assigning something to this picture which is not evident. There is no sign of malnourishiment (sp?), there are no scars on their bodies, they have ten toes and ten fingers, they are clothed probably as good as 95% of kids were at the time, they are not covered in filth, they are not (presently) working, they are not being whipped. IN THIS PICTURE - there is no sign of "generic horror" or "victimization" or mistreatment. Why make a statement that those things are in this picture when they are not? We have so many real provable true facts on our side ! Be honest. Morgan and Soodalter are simply making stuff up at the end of the original story. We don't need fiction to vouch for the atrocity of slavery!

chaunceydevega said...

They were sold as property. Separated from their families.
Tell me then what else do we need to qualify them as "victims?"

And tell me, looking at their eyes do you see joy there?


Anonymous said...

Oh gee, I never thought of slavery as bad. Now I see the light. This picture, because these kids are black and not white, definitely proves that slavery is bad. I now see that so clearly. You got me.

By the way - no one smiled in pictures circa 1860, no matter what their race.

But - I give up. No hard feelings. I like your blogs or I would not be here.

chaunceydevega said...

I appreciate your posting and thanks for the complement. But, I am engaging you because it is troubling that it would not be a given that slavery, de facto, is dehumanizing and abusive. The tone of your first post suggested that 1) we should be happy we are in America...that is worrisome whenever there is a connection made between the Black Holocaust and the common deflection that by implication we black folks should "stop complaining and feel lucky" and 2) that this human property, these children were "well treated."

Does that mitigate the crime against them?


fred c said...

Great stuff. I usually think of blogs, including my own, as "not being worth the paper they're printed on." Yours is a happy exception. Thanks for your efforts.