Portrait of a Washerwoman for the Union Army, around Richmond, VA, with a flag pinned to dress

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Ambrotype photograph of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, circa 1865, Richmond, Virginia.
Source: Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

At the website for National Public Radio, Shannon Thomas Perich offers an interpretation of this image:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

…This photograph was not made casually or by accident. Before she even sat for the camera, her dress was clean and pressed, and her hair coiffed. The pinning of the flag, and its coloring and the pink tint on her cheeks, are deliberate actions. The woman holds herself steady, with pride, perhaps assisted by a hidden head brace, and by her arm on the draped table. She holds our gaze with her eyes, which do not reflect happiness or relaxation, but seem to signal a bit of trepidation.

The enitre article from Perich, titled A Flag Of Freedom?, is here.

African American Soldier in Union Infantry Sergeant’s Uniform

African-American-Sergeant
Picture Title: “Unidentified African American soldier in Union infantry sergeant’s uniform and black mourning ribbon with bayonet in front of painted backdrop”
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-34365

This is one of many photographs of Civil War era African American soldiers that is available on-line from the Library of Congress.

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal (being built in the Swamp). A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. Fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Jump Jim Crow

A short video showing images of Thomas Rice as “Jim Crow,” minstrel inspired toys, and clips from minstrel performances. Video features the “Jump Jim Crow” tune. Video created by Office of Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University ( http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ )

The term “Jim Crow” is commonly used to refer to the period of racial segregation that lasted from the end of Reconstruction Era (around 1877) to the 1960s, when judicial decisions, congressional legislation, and executive actions officially ended the practice of separate and equal – a practice which almost always resulted in the separate and disciminatory treatment of African Americans.

But where did the term “Jim Crow” come from? It appears to come from the “blackface” minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who darkened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to his song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

The Jim Crow Museum website provides some details:

“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

These words are from the song, “Jim Crow,” as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. Rice, a struggling “actor” (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song — some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “Jim Crow” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup — his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then “Jim Crow” was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice’s subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

Continue reading

Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”

Author Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album,” with CivilWarMonitor.com.

In an earlier post, I talked about the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. The book features photographs of Civil War era African Americans – most of them members of the United States Colored Troops – along with a biographical sketch of the persons who are pictured. It’s the third book in Coddington’s “Faces of the Civil War” series. The first book features photos and stories of white Union soldiers, and the second features Confederate soldiers.

The video above is an interview with the Coddington, in which he discusses the process for creating the book, including the challenges he encountered and the insights he learned. The interview is conducted by Civilwarmonitor.com, the digital arm of The Civil War Monitor, a quarterly magazine about the history and memory of the Civil War.

Coddington mentions that his desire to do the book came from a very brief interaction with a black woman who attended a talk he gave about his first book, the one that featured white Union soldiers. The woman looked through the book, told Coddington that there were black people who fought in the Civil War, and then just walked away. Right then an there, Coddington says, he knew he had to do a follow-up book that explored the black experience during the war. I think that woman would be more than pleased with the result.

President Kennedy Unveils Stamp to Commemorate the Emanicpation Proclamation, 1963

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President John Kennedy unveils the commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The picture was taken in the White House in May 1963. The persons in the photo are, L-R, Berl Bernhard, Staff Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Georg Olden, designer of the stamp and Vice President of McCann-Erickson advertising firm; Postmaster General J. Edward Day; and President Kennedy.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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President John Kennedy, right, makes remarks after unveiling the stamp. The photo includes Georg Olden, designer of the stamp, and Postmaster General J. Edward Day.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In the preceding blog post, I displayed images of two stamps commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation: the 1963 stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation, and the 2013 stamp that commemorates the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The 1963 stamp was unveiled on May 1, 1963, in an Oval Office ceremony held with then president John F. Kennedy. This is the draft press release for the unveiling ceremony, which is from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

President Kennedy today unveiled the design of an Emancipation Proclamation commemorative postage stamp that marks the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s executive action that brought freedom to three million Negro slaves.

The new stamp will first be issued in Chicago next August 16, opening day of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in that city.

In a proclamation calling for national observance of the centennial, Mr. Kennedy had earlier noted that “the goal of securing equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy.”

Georg Olden, of New York City, designer of the stamp, was present as Mr. Kennedy and Postmaster General J. Edward Day drew aside the drapes to display an illuminated color reproduction of the new stamp. Mr. Olden in the first of his race to design a U. S. postage stamp. (Emphasis added.) He is Vice President of the New York advertising firm McKann-Erickson.

Also participating in the ceremony in the President’s office was Ashby G. Smith, president of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and Berl I. Bernhard, Staff Director, Civil Rights Commission.

The 5-cent Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamp depicts a severed link in a massive black chain, placed against a blue background. The inscription “United States” in red appears top center of the stamp, flanked by “1863-1963″ in blue. At the bottom, also in blue, is “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The designer of the stamp, graphics designer Georg Olden, was an African American pioneer in white corporate America, as an executive at CBS and at the ad agency McCann-Erickson. Olden, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was the grandson of a slave; I wonder what emotions he had at that moment, and if he pondered that he himself was a living symbol of how great a distance people of African descent had traveled since the time of the Civil War?