American. Black minstrel figure dressed as Uncle Sam, circa 1875. Sheet iron, pigment, 112.3 cm.
Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Valued for its practical union of art and utility, the weather vane has long been considered a classic form of American folk art. Unlike most other examples of the genre, however, this striding figure of a black Uncle Sam goes far beyond the conventional treatment of the theme to probe beneath the surface of what it meant to be an American during the turbulent post-Civil War period.

During the second half of the 19th century, several highly successful firms produced standard types such as racehorses, roosters and fish for an avid consumer market. Local craftsmen like the creator of this memorable piece, on the other hand, originated their own, more colloquial vocabulary of images and production techniques to produce a parallel body of work full of whimsy and individual expression. Only the phrase “found in Connecticut,” discovered in its scantily documented provenance, reveals any specific idea of its origin and use. On stylistic and technical grounds, however, this intriguing figure seems to have been created a decade or so after the end of the Civil War.

The impression of Uncle Sam’s spirited movement was directly conveyed from the artist’s mind to concrete form. The body is constructed from a single sheet of hammered iron, its contours redolent of an informal grasp of proportion and movement. The projecting arms were made separately and attached by rivets to the main form. Raised in front of the figure’s face, the bent arm effects a punning, comic play between the choreography of dance and an air of thumb-nosing insouciance. The arm also serves the practical function of a wind-direction indicator.

The original color scheme survives in abraded but still legible form. The red-and-white-striped pants, blue scissor-tailed coat and top hat are unmistakably those of the traditional guise of Uncle Sam. Closer examination of the face and hands reveals the presence of the original black pigment remaining over the rusted, brownish-red tone of the iron itself. The figure therefore represents a dark-skinned Uncle Sam. A small dot of white paint near the bridge of the nose, now very faint, once imparted a lively accent of interior feeling to the physically animated symbol of political solidarity.

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Across its surface, the metal figure shows clear signs of a long life exposed to the elements. It is possible that the figure remained in place for an entire century. Most likely the unconventional image of a black Uncle Sam topped a private structure such as a barn, house or small workplace. Weather vanes intended for churches, town halls and other public venues were not only more subtly crafted, but also bore conventional imagery clearly related to the building’s function. What must have been a one-off production in the case of the Uncle Sam weather vane would have manifested a very different, unsanctioned statement of personal whimsy bordering on the subversive.

At the time this distinctive piece was made, the image of Uncle Sam was just emerging as a popular evocation of the role of the national government in the lives of the American people. The phenomenon received its real impetus during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, when the brightly colored image of the older but still vigorous Brother Jonathan, the original male visual trope for the nation as a people, was co-opted for a new role. The revamped figure of Uncle Sam first appeared on the cover of an 1876 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the work of the chief cartoonist for the newspaper, Thomas Nast.

The blackfaced treatment of the national persona seen here provides valuable insight into the intersection of race, culture and a new, emerging sense of nationhood during the second half of the 19th century. The figure of Uncle Sam adopts a lively, dancing posture, his arms and legs suggesting the measured rhythm of a performer sporting across the stage. The combination of skin color, costume and pose suggest the identity of the figure as a minstrel player. He can be imagined either as a white man in blackface or as a black man, perhaps also “blacked up” for public performance.

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At least as a point of departure, the anonymous craftsman’s lively image of a black Uncle Sam may take its cue from the spirited song-and-dance routines of the professional minstrel stage, but in fact the revered personification of the nation’s character seems rarely, if ever, to have appeared in blackface. One notable, though highly qualified exception, is the adoption of the role of Uncle Sam by Happy John, a former slave who was once owned by the well-known South Carolinian planter Wade Hampton. John toured the Southern states during the 1880s, playing banjo and guitar while singing and telling humorous stories.

It should be pointed out that Happy John’s act was not part of a large minstrel revue but instead took the more intimate form of an itinerant two-person street show. While in blackface and Uncle Sam costume, the slave-turned-entertainer regaled his audience with impromptu anecdotes, many poking fun at his own race. Attending a performance in Asheville, N.C., Charles Dudley Warner, a friend and collaborator of Mark Twain, noted a tinge of sadness in John’s performance as he reflected on his former life in bondage. As for the spectacle of a black Uncle Sam, according to the author, “this conceit of a colored Yankee seemed to tickle all colors in the audience amazingly.”

Southern viewers could perhaps indulge the novel sight of a black man as Uncle Sam with a sense of good-humored irony, given that the combination seemed to poke fun at the pretensions of the victorious Union cause. In the large minstrel theaters of the North, however, such a potent blackfaced persona may have exceeded the proper bounds of credulity set for a performance medium intended not at stirring controversy but rather at offering a distracting palliative for the social ills of the country.

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The novel sheet iron rendering of a black Uncle Sam embodies a much more private rumination on his orthodox—that is, white—form. Its projection of race on the nation’s most affectionate symbol of identity leaps beyond prevailing social conventions to posit a radically reconstructed level of racial acceptance. The artist himself may well have been black, a free person of color living in southern New England. Sheet metal work, like pottery and fine carpentry, was a craft frequently practiced by both free and enslaved blacks. Uniquely, the unsung maker of the cavorting figure of Uncle Sam found his own way to participate in the great tradition of American image making, while adding to it a penetrating commentary on the far-too-exclusive nature of the national polity. 

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.