The Blackville Gallery, late 1890s


Image Description: 1897 Picture of the Blackville Gallery. Elegant hand colored wood engraving titled,”The Blackville gallery,” from Leslie’s Weekly. Shows scene of a rehearsal of the Blackville Choir. 11 x 16in. $150
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.

These are several of the “Blackville Gallery” photographs by Knaffl & Bro. studios of Knoxville, Tennessee, that in appeared in Leslie’s Weekly in the late 1890s.

Per Wikipedia, Leslie’s Weekly, born as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, was “an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1852 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie… Throughout its decades of existence, the weekly provided illustrations and reports – first with wood engravings and Daguerreotype, later with more advanced forms of photography – of wars from John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and the Civil War until the Spanish-American War and the First World War.”

In 1897/98, the magazine featured a set of photographs called the “Blackville Gallery” series. The photos show contemporary African Americans, presumably from Knoxville, engaged in various aspects aspects of domestic life, such as attending church or weighing a young child to check its growth. Some might say the photos are caricature-ish, and close to being minstrelsy. But as I look at the pictures, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that these amateur models (and these are staged images) bring to the photo shoots. They seem to be having fun with it. It’s as if they are comfortable with poking fun at themselves, and don’t see every attempt at humor at their expense to necessarily be degrading or insulting. Or so it seems to me.

The photographs were produced by Knaffl & Bro. of Knoxville, Tennessee. Wikipedia talks about Joseph Knaffl (October 9, 1861 – March 23, 1938) here.

These images are (or were) being sold as prints at the “Prints Old & Rare,” site. I have included the description of the images at the site, as well as their selling price, to give an idea of the current value of these pictures.


Image Description:1897 Photogravure featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “The Blackville Gallery, — No. III.” Caption reads, “The Blackville Cotillon, — “Mr. Johnsing, Turn Me Luse!” Image shows a small jazz ensemble playing for some dancers as a man claps to the rhythm of the music. The sign above his head reads, “Welcum.” Copyright by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tennessee. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.


Image Description: 1898 Photogravure by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tenn. featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “Weighing the Christmas Baby in Blackville.” Authentic portrait of a family at home trying to weigh a baby with their makeshift scale. A woman at left pours some water from an old kettle which was heated in the stovepipe as a child has a bite to eat at center. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.
Continue reading

Washington, DC, April 2015

IMG_1824

Picture taken in Washington, DC, in April 2015, near Ford’s Theater. At left is Marquett Milton, a Civil War/US Colored Troops reenactor, with one of man’s best friends, along with other folks in Civil War era dress.

The past few months have seen a number of Civil War events in Washington, DC, such as the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, Lincoln’s assassination, and the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

Perhaps the biggest event will be the Grand Review Parade, scheduled for May 17, 2015. Be there, so you can take a picture of a Civil War reenactor with a dog… or something like that.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, are indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

“Bid Em In” – A Video for Oscar Brown Jr’s Biting Riposte on Slave Auctions

This video is based on Oscar Brown Jr’s song “Bid Em In.” This was the subject of one of my first posts when I opened this blog four years ago. I find the video moving even after numerous views.

Thanks and congratulations to Neal Sopata for his excellent animation work.

Toy Soldiers

10931264_768650006552267_8268701233816863966_n
Figurines of United States Colored Troops from the American Civil War.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

These are pictures of some very cool figurine displays that were posted to the Facebook page of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Unfortunately, the site of these displays is not clearly identified. Too bad; I’d love to see them in person. If anybody knows where these are, please drop me a line.

10246322_768649999885601_5546554524345218608_n
Figurines of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The figure to the far right is wearing the uniform of the First Rhode Island Regiment, which fought with the Patriots.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

10896853_768650009885600_7238741164981218406_n
I suspect this scene is based on the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

North meets South, Zouave meets boy: Winslow Homer’s Contraband

Contraband Winslow Homer
Contraband, by Winslow Homer. Watercolor, 1875
Source: Wikipedia Commons. Click here for larger size.

The American Civil War made for new and unexpected encounters between North and South. One of those is captured in Winslow Homer’s poignant 1875 watercolor painting Contraband, which features a Union soldier in a Zouave uniform and a runaway slave boy.

What did these two see in each other’s faces? This might be the first time that the white soldier sees a slave in the flesh. Understand that in 1860, less than 2% of the North’s population was of African descent; millions of northerners went their entire lives without ever seeing a negro. Slaves had been much talked about, but hardly seen except for press illustrations which typically represented them as big-lipped, dark-skinned caricatures. But as this soldier gazed upon the boy, he may have seen, not a cartoon image, but rather, the face of humanity. And so he was moved to this act of kindness, of sharing his water with the boy.

And what did the child, whose enslaved family had sought refuge behind Union lines, make of this man with the garish uniform and the funny accent? During the war, thousands of slaves heeded the advice of the grapevine telegraph that the United States army offered them freedom, if they could escape to Union lines. Having survived his family’s sojourn from bondage, the thirsty and exhausted boy with the curious and almost trepidatious look may have tasted not just water, but also, liberation and hope. Perhaps the boy thought that he might be a soldier himself one day. (Many black men who escaped bondage did become soldiers, and maybe even some boys.) Continue reading

Remembering the Emancipation Proclamation

Viewing the Emancipation Proclamation
In 1947, former slave Sally Fickland views the Emancipation Proclamation
The Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863.

Photo Source: National Archives

From the National Archives:

This photograph shows 88-year-old Mrs. Sally Fickland, a former slave, looking at the Emancipation Proclamation in 1947.

She would have been 3 years old when Lincoln signed the proclamation in 1862.

The document was in Philadelphia that day on the first stop on the Freedom Train tour. The Freedom Train carried the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights across America. During the 413-day tour, 3.5 million people in 322 cities in 48 states.

Due to its fragile condition—it was printed on both sides of poor-quality 19th-century paper, unlike the Constitution, which is written on more durable parchment—the Emancipation Proclamation can only be displayed for 30 hours each year.