Envisioning Emancipation: Photography Helped Slaves Envision Better Lives Post-Slavery

Envisioning EmancipationA scruffy African-American family stands outside their run-down home while a dapper young man sits up straight in a waistcoat and suit. These are the never-before-seen faces of slavery and Emancipation, revealing families’ lives before and after they were freed.

The images themselves played a key part in allowing the men, women and children freedom – being distributed through the northern states as propaganda during the push for abolition, and employed by former slaves to showcase their new images.

More than 150 of the photographs feature in a new book, Envisioning Emancipation, which has been published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 on January 1. Most of the images, which reveal what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era, were taken between the 1850s and the 1930s.

They have been collated by Dr. Deborah Willis, a professor at the department of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and Dr. Barbara Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The women spent years searching museums and archives throughout the country in a bid to expand the photographic record that would allow readers to look at race and freedom in a new way.

‘We wanted a range of images that showed the scope of the thinking about what freedom looked like,’ Dr. Willis told the New York Times. 

‘We consciously looked for black photographers; we consciously looked for images of women, whose stories have often not been included.’

And as they searched, they found numerous images challenging the ideas of slavery – ‘images that have gone missing from the historical record,’ Dr. Willis said.

On the road to freedom: An African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and daughters between 1863 – the year of the Emancipation Proclamation – and 1865On the road to freedom: An African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and daughters between 1863 - the year of the Emancipation Proclamation - and 1865At work: Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River in Virginia in 1862 – the year before the Emancipation ProclamationAt work: Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River in Virginia in 1862 - the year before the Emancipation ProclamationWorking together: A photograph from 1864 reads: ‘Colored army teamsters, Cobb Hill, Va’. It is one of 150 pictures in a new book about photography and EmancipationWorking together: A photograph from 1864 reads: 'Colored army teamsters, Cobb Hill, Va'. It is one of 150 pictures in a new book about photography and EmancipationA soldier in Union uniform between 1863-1865African American soldier in Union uniform and forage cap. 1863-1865 A formerly enslaved man holds a horn with which slaves were called, near Marshall, TexasFormerly enslaved man holding the horn with which slaves were called, near Marshall, TexasHorrors: The authors also discovered never-before-seen battle pictures. Here, men collect the bones of soldiers killed in battle, Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1865Horrors: The authors also discovered never-before-seen battle pictures. Here, men collect the bones of soldiers killed in battle, Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1865New life: A whole family poses by a building in Savannah, Georgia in 1907New life: A whole family poses by a building in Savannah, Georgia in 1907Smart: The caption reads: ‘District of Columbia, Company E, Fourth U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln’. The image was taken between 1862 and 1865Smart: The caption reads: 'District of Columbia, Company E, Fourth U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln'. The image was taken between 1862 and 1865Alongside pictures of enslaved people on plantations, there were images of wealthy black families posing together, black Union soldiers, Emancipation Day celebrations and reunions between former slaves, the Times reported.

The book also contains photographs taken in the bid for emancipation. There are ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of children, showing how they could transform into respectable youngsters, and slave children with white skin to create sympathy among white northerners.

Other images allowed northerners to witness the cruelty of slavery and the respectable individuals the former slaves had become. And black leaders, including Frederick Douglass and abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, often turned to the medium, to further their abolitionist campaigns.

There are also examples of how photography was used by the supporters of slavery, using images as evidence of its ‘natural order and orderliness’. And, following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the use of photography evolved – eventually being used by black men and women to show off their new, post slavery looks and to portray their hopes of freedom.

Subsequently, the book, which was published earlier this month, shows how photography was central in the war against slavery, racism and segregation

Photography was also used a propaganda to show how former slaves could become respectable people. Pictured: a studio portrait of an African American sailor taken between 1861 and 1865.Studio portrait of an African American sailor c. 1861 - 1865A self-liberated teenage woman with two Union soldiers in 1862Self-liberated teenage woman with two Union soldiers, Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, and Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster. 1862Respectable: A woman, Sarah McGill Russwurm, is pictured in Liberia. She is pictured in 1854Unidentified woman, believed to be Sarah McGill Russwurm, sister of Urias A. McGill and widow of John Russwurm. 1854Respectable: A man, Urias Africanus McGill, a merchant in Liberia. He is pictured in 1854Urias Africanus McGill (c. 1823-1866), merchant in Liberia, born in Baltimore, Maryland 1854Forging on: Left, a soldier in Union uniform between 1863-1865African American soldier in Union uniform and forage cap. 1863-1865 A formerly enslaved man holds a horn with which slaves were called, near Marshall, TexasFormerly enslaved man holding the horn with which slaves were called, near Marshall, TexasSusie King Taylor, pictured left in 1902, was the first African American to teach openly in a school for former slavesSusie King Taylor 1902Booker T. Washington, a teacher, author, orator, and adviser to Republican presidents. He would speak on behalf of black people who lived in the South in 1915 Portrait of Booker T. Washington 1915Documenting change: This image of an African American woman holding a white child in 1855 features in a new book, Envisioning EmancipationAfrican American woman holding a white child in 1855

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9 thoughts on “Envisioning Emancipation: Photography Helped Slaves Envision Better Lives Post-Slavery

  1. Beautiful yet sad photographs. When you enslave people and remove them from their homes, put their entire families and unborn generations through the most grueling torture known to mankind, is this all they get? I’m appalled at the one photograph where two slavemasters are pointing their guns at a slave woman. Black people are one of the strongest races of all the races. Look at them now…yes, there are still things that need to change but they’ve come a long way. Happy MLK day everyone! Happy Freedom Remembrance day!

  2. I’m going to download this book on Amazon if the Kindle version is available. These pictures bring back sad memories which are unfortunately part of our history. This must have been the era when segregation of white and free blacks began.

  3. I don’t know if I’m just being too emotional, but I’m sad looking at these photographs yet I’m proud of how far we’ve come since slavery. We have so many millionaires in the African-American community and it continues to grow. We have a handful of billionaires and that will continue to grow as well. My dad is a multiracial African-American and my mom is Caucasian but thinking about how that wasn’t even an option once upon a time is liberating. We’ve come far but we still have so much more to do…

    • Don’t be sad. Not only do these photographs represent emancipation, they also represent progress. I’m Blasian and when I think about my African ancestry, I’m amazed at how times have changed.

  4. Pingback: Images of Freedom: Photo Collection Shows the Faces of Emancipation | Curiosity Dispensary

  5. Pingback: Black History Month: African-Americans during segregation in the Jim Crow south | KolorBlind Mag

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