Portraits of Freedom: An Intimate Photo Exploration of Emancipation

A look at the images that reflect everyday life for African Americans pre and post slavery.

What did freedom look like, asked Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer when they set out to compile the impressive tome Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, a photographic history of the African American journey from slavery to emancipation during and after the Civil War. Published to coincide with the 150 anniversary of emancipation this past January, the book highlights 150 rare photographs that show slaves and formers slaves as dignified, beautiful, and full of pride—imagery not often emphasized when exploring the era. GOOD spoke with Krauthamer about what these photographs reveal about the time of slavery, and America as a nation.

African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters; Photographer unknown, 1863–1865

GOOD: You went through over 1,000 photographs. How did you select the ones to use in the book?

BARBARA KRAUTHAMER: We looked at photographs from all over the country in museums, libraries, the Library of Congress, university archives, private collections. We were looking for images that we thought really illuminated our central question: “what did freedom look like?” We wanted to show a range of experiences from the 1850s when black and white abolitionists were involved in the anti-slavery fight through the early 20th century to think about what freedom looked like generations after emancipation—how the legacy of emancipation was remembered and preserved.

Studio portrait of an African American sailor; Photographer: Ball and Thomas Photographic Art Gallery, 1861–1865

Susie King Taylor; Photographer unknown, 1902

GOOD: Were you surprised by any of the photographs that you came upon?

KRAUTHAMER: One of the things we were struck by were certain continuous themes that we saw from the 1850s through the 1960s: those of dignity, pride and perseverance, sometimes in the most oppressive of times in the United States.

Whole family at the Hermitage, Savannah, Georgia; Photographer unknown, 1907

GOOD: The book was inspired by this image of a woman named Dolly whose photograph was on a wanted flyer. Her owner was trying to get her back, and you tried to uncover her story.

KRAUTHAMER: Yes, we don’t know why the photograph was taken, but it’s attached to a hand written notice because Dolly freed herself by running away in 1863. Her master wrote this notice offering a reward for her return, put her photograph on it, and saved that notice long after she was gone, and the war had ended and slavery was abolished. He was still clinging to this image of her, and she had gone off and made her own life far away from him.

GOOD: Another interesting image was one with a teenage girl, and these two union soldiers—it looks like they are holding a gun to her head, but actually it was a common pose at the time.

KRAUTHAMER: That’s another story of a young woman who freed herself by running away, and she escaped dressed as a young boy and the soldiers were escorting her to safety. The photographer who made the picture was a prominent African American photographer, and in the pose they’re holding their guns to their chest in this proud patriotic pose, but in the composition it looks like they’re aimed at her head.

Self-liberated teenage woman with two Union soldiers, Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, and Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster; Photographer: J. P. Ball, 1862

GOOD: What was it like for an African American photographer working then?

KRAUTHAMER: They enjoyed considerable success and so we featured images by a number of African American photographers and we deliberately looked for those images to highlight their roles as consumers and patrons of photography, but also as photographers creating these images and documenting this history. Photography was understood as a skilled, artistic profession, and they were skilled businessmen and skilled photographers at their craft. They worked mostly in cities—northern cities primarily, but not exclusively.

Emancipated Slaves—White and Colored: Wilson Chinn, Charles Taylor, Augusta Boujey, Mary Johnson, Isaac White, Rebecca Huger, Robert Whitehead, Rosina Downs; Photographer: Myron H. Kimball, 1863

GOOD: Were they primarily working with African American subjects?

KRAUTHAMER: Both. Augustus Washington for example photographed African American subjects, but he also made the very famous portrait of the abolitionist John Brown. Before the Civil War, slaveholders often had portraits made of their families with a slave on the side, or an enslaved woman holding their child to showcase their wealth, but also to present images of slavery as benign—to show that these people were well cared for, and well clothed.

Nursemaid with her charge, Arkansas; Photographer unknown, 1855

Then there’s another series we showcase commissioned by the Swiss born scientist Louis Agassiz, who was on the faculty of Harvard, and traveled to South Carolina with a photographer to make portraits of enslaved Africans and their American born descendants. His goal was to use photography as a tool to document racial difference and to prove that there were different orders of human beings: Africans constituted a different type of human being than Europeans. He had these photographs made to present people as scientific specimens. So we use those images to show the counterpoints of what black photographers and black photographic subjects and others who understood the power of photography to make these political arguments about the nature of humanity, the nature of freedom, of citizenship.

GOOD: After studying these photographs, what can we take away from this and apply to race relations today?

KRAUTHAMER: The real idea that we wanted to convey was of African American involvement in shaping their own lives and communities and to show African Americans as architects of their own history. They were engaged in political debates, fighting for freedom, people who were freeing themselves from slavery—they weren’t just waiting to be emancipated. We also wanted to show a long history of dignity and perseverance—people’s sense of themselves as beautiful, intelligent, and creative.

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