January 1, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and in light of the historical milestone, two educators — Deborah Willis, New York University photographic historian, and Barbara Krauthamer, historian of slavery at University of Massachusetts-Amherst — created Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, a book of photographs that shows what freedom looked like for blacks around the time of emancipation and reveals the role African Americans played in gaining their own freedom. The two scholars spoke to The Root about the history behind the photos and how there’s more to these stills than meets the eye.
Sarah McGill Russwurm (1854)
Deborah Willis: It was important for me to research the idea of how people left America because they did not feel that it was a country that was suitable for freedom or a certain lifestyle. [Russwurm’s family] decided to move to Monrovia, Liberia … I thought this is a story that most don’t know about — the dignity of her pose, but also that she’s mourning her husband, John Russwurm, who was one of the first black journalists in America.
Barbara Krauthamer: For some black Americans, to be free meant to leave their country … In Liberia, the Russwurm family was very successful in business and politics. John Russwurm was a big newspaper man who opposed emigration and then changed his mind because the climate was so hostile.
Slave Market, Whitehall Street, Atlanta (1864)
DW: This explores the idea of how blacks were seen as objects. Next door to the Negro sales store, there’s a cigar shop, and upstairs there’s China glass. So we used this [in the book] to question and show concern over that image in that time period.
BK: Even though this is a wartime image, and you look at that landscape, it’s almost unremarkable — china, cigars … go buy what you need to buy. It’s always jarring.
Fugitive blacks fording Virginia's Rappahannock River (1862)
BK: What I love about this image is the idea of mobility … These wagons are loaded with stuff, possessions. I imagine that women packed up quilts they had made for their families at night, all of those things that people have saved and pieced together. Contraband is the term that was used by the Union Army and by Congress during the Civil War for [fugitive slaves who] presented themselves to the Union Army. The Union Army and then Congress enacted measures that said, essentially, people who’ve freed themselves will not be returned to slavery. Otherwise, the Confederacy would use their labor for the war effort … Within weeks of the Civil War beginning, people began freeing themselves. Long before Lincoln began agitating for the 13th Amendment, black people are taking what they have and going.
Sweet potato planting, James Hopkinson's plantation, South Carolina (1862)
DW: This is an idealized image that I found important about showing [free labor vs. slave labor] during the Civil War period … The beauty of it [brings to mind] paintings from that time period and depicts the work as honorable … It was a narrative that told the story of labor in a different way. The overseers on the horses were black. The image’s making was set up, but you can see some of them were wearing the Union uniforms, and this was when the Union soldiers took over the land to feed the freed people.
BK: This photographer was from New Hampshire and the traveling photographers then would sell these images for news or souvenirs.
Soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters (1863-1865)
DW: The soldier is fighting for not only his freedom but also his family’s freedom. It distilled myths about black manhood, because this was a family that shared in that experience. Some people said, “I didn’t know that soldiers went to the studios to have their pictures taken.” Studios were created, and they created a biography of people who wanted to talk about their freedom and debate it … The traveling photographers working then had studios in the cities, but others traveled in wagons to different campsites and created images on location.
Two brothers-in-arms (1860-1870)
DW: There’s a wonderful notion of brothers going together to fight; there’s a playfulness. I also wanted to show the age of these young boys who were enslaved and decided to go together and fight. [Their faces looked shocked because] sometimes it took up to five minutes to pose for a picture so that the photographer could focus and let the light enter the lens and close the shutter.
BK: Frederick Douglass’ sons are in the book as well, and these images are about black men’s contribution to the nation and the freedom fight.
Colored Army teamsters (1864)
DW: These were the men who moved horses, wagons, trains and artillery — guns, cannons, ammunition. These were the workers during that time. They were creating their freedom, and we thought it was important to show the men and the women working together and how photographers were part of that narrative.
BK: We have a couple of letters in the chapter [in which that photograph appears] from people writing about their sons and husbands going to work and protesting their lower wages and poor treatment.
Susie King Taylor (1902)
BK: Her face is so serious, but she looks determined.
DW: She nursed wounded soldiers, and she also spent time teaching and writing letters for them.
Collecting the bones of soldiers killed in battle, Cold Harbor, Va. (1865)
DW: This is one of the most popular images of the Civil War, where the workers are burying both the Confederate as well as Union dead.
BK: Aside from the goriness, there’s a story about the toll the war took on the survivors and who was cleaning up the mess. It’s jarring in its own way, like the “Negro sales” picture.
Emancipation Day, April 3, Richmond, Va. (1905)
BK: This is 1905, and here is this crowd of well-dressed black people in the public thoroughfare. People are celebrating emancipation, and those celebrations continued into the 20th century. I think about strength and vibrancy of this community and also the determination of this community to occupy public space. In 1905, people are still being lynched and Jim Crow is taking hold, and yet, people are still claiming public space to celebrate Emancipation. If you look up in the windows, you can see people looking down at the crowd, like “They’ve claimed this space for an Emancipation Day celebration?”
Whole family at the Hermitage, Savannah, Ga. (1907)
BK: This whole area in Savannah, Ga. was known as a grueling place to work. People were worked to the bone and died. Here we have multiple generations, posed in front of an old slave quarter, who’ve survived in freedom in what was known as the dying fields. It makes me think of West African spirituality and the connection — while the living and the dead are occupying different worlds, there’s a sense of connectedness to the ancestors.
Portrait of Booker T. Washington (c. 1915)
BK: He hired different photographers depending on where he was, either black or white. When he was in the South he hired black photographers, and in the North he hired whites because he knew they had more access. It was about where he would be able to travel with people to have his picture made and have his life documented. He was very savvy about the power of photographs and photographers.