Free Blacks in Baltimore, circa late 1850s, by Thomas Waterman Wood


Thomas_Waterman_Wood_-_Market_Woman_-_Google_Art_Project copy
Detail from “Market Woman” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the book Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860, by Christopher Philips: “Wood’s 1858 oil painting ‘Market Woman’ portray(s) a free black street vendor in Baltimore. Many African American women were vendors, or ‘hucksters,’ in the antebellum years.”
Image Source: From Wikimedia Commons via the Google Art Project

Thomas-Waterman-Wood-xx-Moses,-The-Baltimore-News-Vendor Dupe
Detail from “Moses, The Baltimore News Vendor” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the Art Project of the Google Cultural Institute/de Young Museum: “This painting depicts the freed slave Moses Small, who was a well-known Baltimore newspaper vendor. Dressed in elegant but worn attire, Moses holds a stack of Baltimore Patriot newspapers in his left arm as he tips his hat to greet the next customer. (For some whites,) Moses may have symbolized the virtues of capitalism, which provided economic opportunities for many Americans. However, the selling of newspapers was one of a limited number of jobs available to free blacks in the pre–Civil War era.
Image Source: Artclon.com

Maryland in the late 1850s was, to use a phrase made popular by Abraham Lincoln, half slave and half free: 51% of the state’s African Americans were enslaved, while 49% were free. This post is about the artist Thomas Waterman Wood whose paintings gave vibrancy and dignity to African Americans in the part of the state that was half-free.

But first, some background: prior to the Civil War, Maryland had a split personality. Free labor and slave labor were prominent in different parts of the state. In the southern part of the state that bordered Virginiaand the District of Columbia, slavery had a large presence. In the northern part of the state that was adjacent to Pennsylvania, it was mostly a free labor society.

In the late 1850s, the Maryland municipalities with the largest enslaved and free black populations, respectively, were Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Perhaps fittingly, these two places were a mere 25 miles away from each other. Prince George’s County (PG County), which borders Washington, DC (DC was created from land that PG County donated) had the state’s largest enslaved population, with around 12,500 people held in bondage. The county has changed much over the years. Today PG County has one of the highest, if not the highest, per capita incomes of any majority-black county in the United States.

Time has not been as kind to the city of Baltimore. In 1860, it had almost 25,700 free blacks; this was the largest free black population of any city North or South. The city had a number of prominent social and civic institutions for African Americans, and industrial and shipping businesses would enjoy a boom there. But black and white middle-class flight in the second half of the 20th century has taken its toll on the city, whose urban dysfunction was cataloged in the HBO series The Wire. Recently, the city erupted into violence after a black man died while in police custody.

But in an earlier time, Thomas Waterman Wood found beautiful things in black Baltimore. A resident of the city in the late 1850s, the Vermont-born Wood became a prominent 19th century artist, known for his figure and portrait work. Several of his paintings from his stay in Baltimore stand out for their dignified treatment of the African-Americans who lived there. Recollect that, this was a time when African Americans were seen as degraded and even subhuman. Caricatured images of people of African descent were not uncommon in American art. But Wood’s art was not like that at all.

Two of his pictures are displayed above. The first picture, a portrait of a female street vendor, is delightful. The woman in the picture is smartly and vibrantly dressed. She poses for the picture with an air of confidence and a smile. Perhaps she is simply self-assured, or maybe she is flattered to be painted by this white artist. Her posture is straight and comfortable; she seems to feel good in her own skin. Is this picture merely portraiture, or a political statement? Regardless, a viewer with sensitivity to such things might say that for her, freedom is becoming.

The second picture features a newspaper vendor and former slave named Moses Small. His attire is “elegant but worn.” He gracefully doffs his hat for the artist, a gesture he made to his many street customers. The former slave has an air of dignity about him. Perhaps he is not getting rich from his work, but he is is own man, and making an honest living. From his place on the streets of Baltimore, he could no doubt see the changes in the society around him, changes which gave liberties and opportunities, such as they were, to free man and women like himself. In several years, the American Civil War would come, and even more dramatic and substantial change would come to the streets of his hometown, and in America at large. I wonder if Moses Small was there when his city erupted into a riot in 1861, as residents attacked Union soldiers from the North who were on their way south to protect the District of Columbia and fight the Confederates.

Wood produced several other humane, dignified, and non-stereotypical paintings of 19th century African Americans; these are available for viewing with a quick search on Google (or other search engine). Not too many artists were doing such work at the time, and this makes us savor his work all the more.

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One thought on “Free Blacks in Baltimore, circa late 1850s, by Thomas Waterman Wood

  1. I have just read” A Narrative of the Life of Rev. Noah Davis, A Colored Man.” I am preparing a study that looks at slavery from multiple perspectives and Davis’ autobiography discloses a rather co-operative relationship between Blacks and Whites in Baltimore in the 1850’s. Would you have any other texts on the subject that you might recommend. Thank you. Tony D. Morinelli, Ph.D., Bryn Mawr, PA

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