The Young White Faces of Slavery - MARY NIALL MITCHELL, New York Times
For Northern readers scanning the Jan. 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly for news from the South, a large engraving on page 69 brought the war home in an unexpected way. Drawn from a photograph, it featured eight recently freed slaves from Union-occupied New Orleans. At the back of the portrait stood three adults, Wilson Chinn, Mary Johnson and Robert Whitehead. In the foreground were five children — Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, Rosa Downs, Augusta Broujey and Isaac White — ranging in age from 7 to 11. Their gaze was trained on the camera, but in the context of the magazine, the effect was that they all seemed to be looking at the reader.
Instead of the coarse garments worn by most enslaved people in the South, they were well dressed, the men and boys in suits and Mary Johnson and the girls in dresses and petticoats. But it was not their attire that confounded readers. Rather, the pale skin and smooth hair of four of the children — Charles, Augusta, Rebecca and Rosa — overturned a different set of Northern expectations about the appearance of people enslaved in the South: that a person’s African-American heritage would always, somehow, be visible and that only “negroes” could be slaves. The caption beneath the group, like the portrait itself, was meant to provoke the armchair viewer’s unease: “Emancipated Slaves” it proclaimed, “White and Colored.”
It was no accident that the young “white” slaves resembled the children of the magazine’s white middle-class readership, which is to say Northern children who were far removed from the threat of enslavement, or so their parents liked to think. The sponsors of the group from New Orleans anticipated precisely the kind of effect such children might have on Northern middle-class readers. As “the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations,” the Harper’s Weekly editors explained, “they are as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children.”
Historians have long noted that the New York Draft Riots of 1863 were a violent reflection of much public, yet very personal, opposition to the Civil War: that it was a “rich man’s war” fought by the poorest citizens, that it was a bloodletting on behalf of four million slaves with whom few white laborers wanted to compete. But less political weight has been given to the propaganda campaign centered on the group from New Orleans, begun by abolitionists and the Union military in the aftermath of the New York riots.
It was one of the most modern efforts at public persuasion to appear before the turn of the 20th century. Using the new “truth-telling” medium of photography and highly sophisticated personal appeals, the sponsors of the former slaves from New Orleans aimed to give white Northerners a renewed personal stake in the fight against slavery. (For those who want to see these images in their original format, a handful of them are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition “Photography and the American Civil War,” which opens at the New Orleans Museum of Art Jan. 31.
In addition to the large spread in Harper’s Weekly, the campaign included a public tour of the group in New York and Philadelphia and the printing of dozens of individual and small group portraits on cartes de visite, a new, inexpensive way to reproduce photographs and an excellent vehicle for fund-raising. The individual portraits of the white-skinned slave children were clearly popular in their day, at a point in the war when slavery was both still an outrage and an institution on the wane. Scores of them survive in archives and private collections. Yet for nearly 150 years, historians took little notice of these fascinating artifacts of the Civil War.
The tour and photographs were the result of a joint effort by the Union military (specifically the Department of the Gulf under Maj. Gen. N.P. Banks) the American Missionary Association, and the National Freedmen’s Relief Association. The charitable organizations sold the cartes de visite to raise money for the education of former slaves in newly established schools in Louisiana. But their larger aim was to bolster white Northern support for the war and inspire sympathy for former slaves in the South. Indeed, the photographs appeared at a time when desertions, in the North and South, were frequent, and the population fatigued beyond measure. The photographic campaign was, it seems, a renewed call to arms.
What such a campaign implied, of course, was that images of formerly enslaved black children were not enough to spur many Northerners to boost their support for the war and aid freed people in need. Indeed, these images serve as a remarkable reflection of just how much race shaped many Americans’ stake in the bloody conflict.
In the view of the editors at Harper’s Weekly, the war had brought forth a long overdue exposé of Southern slavery, one that surely matched, the writings of the institution’s most incisive observers, from Thomas Jefferson to Fanny Kemble. In an editorial that appeared in the same issue with the engraving, the editors framed the arrival of the “slave children” in New York as an inevitable result of the war. After years of suppressing abolitionists and listening to Southerners and their political allies defend slavery as a benevolent institution, the nation was finally being confronted with “the secret history of the slave system in this country”: “The working-men of the Free States, now soldiers in the field, no longer owe their knowledge of [slavery]” to politicians and newspapers advancing political agendas. Instead, “they see it as no human pen can describe it … as it is in every State, in every city, on every plantation, a doubled-handed curse, smiting both slave and master.” Now, with the help of photography and the presence of this group from New Orleans in the North, far more people could see the effects of slavery for themselves.
Though they were a product of the Civil War, the portraits of “white and colored slaves” betrayed nothing of its ravages. Certainly, they were a far cry from Alexander Gardner’s battlefield landscapes strewn with the bodies of horses and men. In individual and small-group portraits, all of the children were well dressed in proper middle-class Victorian attire and posed to evoke the gentility common in photographic portrait studios of the day: Rebecca dressed in velvet and bows, kneeling in prayer; Rebecca, Charles and Rosa sitting together like siblings; or Rebecca, her head rendered in vignette surrounded by white space, a technique that turned young children into angels. Because the photographs mimicked the typical, middle-class family portrait, they distilled the threat that slavery still posed to the nation. If it were allowed to continue, they seemed to say, slavery could threaten the freedoms of white people.
Not surprisingly, the lightest-skinned children caused the most stir among Northern editors and audiences. The two lightest-skinned girls, Rebecca and Rosa, seemed to have the greatest appeal, judging from the large number of cartes de visite that survive of them. About Rebecca, Harper’s Weekly wrote: “to all appearance, she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood.” With their fair skin and elegant dress, Rebecca and Rosa evoked for most viewers the “fancy girls” sold in the New Orleans slave market. The fate that awaited these girls as concubines to white men was clear to most viewers at the time. Their tender youth compelled Northerners to renew their commitment to the war and rescue girls like these.
This was not the first attempt at capturing the Northern public’s attention with light-skinned slaves. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was one of the first abolitionists to recognize the persuasive power of children such as Rebecca. Beecher brought several light-skinned enslaved children and adults before his congregation at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church early in the war, with the goal of collecting enough money from the pews to buy their freedom. It is from Beecher, in fact, that we get the clearest sense of how 19th-century audiences read the portraits of Rosa and Rebecca. Of a former slave child from Virginia named Fanny Lawrence (of whom cartes de visite also survive), Beecher said from his pulpit, as she stood beside him:
“Look upon this child, tell me if you ever saw a fairer, sweeter face?” Beecher then made explicit the fate that awaited little girls like Fanny. “This is a sample of the slavery which clutches for itself everything fair and attractive,” he explained. “The loveliness of this face, the beauty of this figure, would only make her so much more valuable for lust.” Fanny seemed to represent the most vulnerable of all enslaved people: a white-skinned girl who could be sold in the slave market to a lecherous slaveholder. As Beecher pleaded to his congregation, “Let your soul burn with fiery indignation against the horrible system which turns into chattels such fair children of God! May God strike for our armies … that this accursed thing may be utterly destroyed!” In Beecher’s appeal, fighting slavery was a moral cause in which white Americans had a direct, not an indirect stake.
Yet there is a great deal of ambiguity in these Civil War portraits. While so much of what we think we know about American attitudes during the war reflects either their breathless conviction or hard-edged despair, these images remind us about the uncertainty of the future in 1864.
The portrait of Isaac and Rosa perhaps demonstrates this most clearly. The dark-skinned boy and the light-skinned girl stood with arms linked, in clever clothes, ready to enter free society as educated “docile” children, to use the editors’ term. They represented all former slave children in the South who were ready to be “civilized.” But there were other ways to read this image.
Indeed, the outcome of emancipation remained murky at best for those who may have despised slavery yet clung to a belief in white supremacy. At first glance, for instance, Rosa and Isaac hinted at the so-called miscegenation that many whites feared would come from slavery’s abolition. Although Rosa seemed to be white, however, 19th-century viewers would have known that she was not: a white girl would never have been photographed this way with a black boy. But what if Rosa did not have Isaac at her side, and “slave” printed beneath her portrait? She could walk into the post-emancipation world a white child.
Still, for the war to be won and the Union preserved, sympathy had to become empathy. What better way to do this, their sponsors thought, than to put young white faces upon the institution of slavery? Perhaps none of the campaign’s images was more emphatic on this point than that of Rebecca, kneeling in prayer, surrounded by the American flag, with the caption beneath: “OH! HOW I LOVE THE OLD FLAG!” Rebecca’s portrait mirrored the nationalist message of Harper’s Weekly, distilling in one image the menace that slavery posed to American liberty. Yet rather than fostering racial inclusiveness, the image of an endangered “slave girl” who looked white may have only hardened, for some, their paper-thin faith that despite emancipation the United States could remain a white nation.
Mary Niall Mitchell is the Joseph Tregle professor in early American history and the Ethel and Herman Midlo chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans.