Caption This (Nanny and Child)

Dixons carburet of iron stove polish copy
“Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish,” circa 1885; printers and engravers include Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co. (New York) and A. Gast & Co. (New York and St. Louis).
Description: From a “series of illustrated trade cards depicting an African American woman affectionately playing in the kitchen with a young girl, who is partially covered in Dixon’s carburet of iron stove polish. The little girl stands on the kitchen table and grabs the woman’s cheek as a kettle boils on the stove in the background. Joseph Dixon produced his carburet of iron stove polish in 1827.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.
(Carburet: car·bu·ret [kär′bə-rāt′, -rĕt′] To combine or mix (a gas, for example) with volatile hydrocarbons, so as to increase available fuel energy.)

OK, what’s your caption for this image?

Drunk History: Harriet Tubman leads slaves to freedom during the Civil War

Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, eventually leading raids on plantations in South Carolina that freed over 700 slaves.

Comedy Central’s Drunk History show does a hilarious take on her wartime heroics:

While it is hilarious, it is based on a true story. Much of this seems based in part on the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen, which is a good read.

Crissle West of The Read does most of the voice-over for this video.

Four women and two children at the ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge; Richmond, Virginia, April 1865

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“Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River.” Richmond, Virginia, April 1865;  Alexander Gardner, photographer. Shows group of five African American females (perhaps four women and a girl) and a boy on an island in the James River.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River,”   Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-00388, Call Number: LC-B815- 846

This very curious Civil War era photograph was taken in Richmond, Virginia. The  city had been the Capitol of the Confederate States of America, but in April 1865, it was captured and occupied by Union troops. In the wake of the attack on the city, damage was done to its infrastructure. Some of the damage was done by evacuating Confederate military, to limit the use that the Union army could make of the place.

Alexander Gardner, one of the War’s famed photographers, took this photograph of several African American females and a European American boy near the ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge. The picture was taken at an island in the James River, which flows through the city. The face of the girl in the rear is clouded, probably from shaking her face while the photo was taken. The boy is wearing what appears tp be a soldier’s cap; might his presence represent the Union army’s presence?

The women might have been enslaved when Richmond fell to federal forces; here they were, in their first days of freedom, posing for a photograph in view of their city’s ruins. Don’t forget about us, they say silently to the camera, and to history. Soon after, they, the rest of the city, and the rest of the South, would go through the process of putting the pieces back together and reconstructing a new South.

Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them. Continue reading

Flag, Freedom, and Fury: African American Soldier Tells his Wife “the black man is… coming… with all the terrible trappings of war.”

Regimental flag of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, circa 1863-1865. Art by David Bustill Bowser, an African American artist who designed several USCT flags. The motto at the top of the flag is “Sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants,” and sometimes translated as “death to tyrants” or “down with the tyrant.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-23096; see here for more information.

Among academic and layman historians, there is sometimes a debate about why the common soldier fought in the Civil War. Menomine Maimi, an African American Union soldier, left no doubt about his motivations in a letter to his wife: “Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free.”

Menomine Maimi, AKA Meunomennie Maimi, was an African American who first enlisted in a white regiment in Connecticut, and then was transferred to the famed 54th Massachusetts. In April 1863, he wrote a poignant letter to his spouse that was published in the Weekly Anglo-African, a black-audience newspaper in New York. He had been sick or injured, perhaps near death; but he was now well, and wanted to assure his wife that he was OK, and still spurred to service. Maimi was, to use a modern term, a man on a mission. Eventually, he left the army with a medical discharge.

Maimi’s letter is in equal parts profoundly patriotic, scathingly anti-slavery, aggressively assertive of his manly responsibilities, and undergirded by his belief in God. Apparently, his wife had urged him to leave the army — perhaps even desert — because he was mistreated by his fellow soldiers, probably because of his race. But his mission would not allow him to abandon his duty.

Maimi told his wife, emphatically, that he was a solider, and was duty bound to be true to his country, his fellow soldiers, and also, his “enslaved brothers.” His service had its rewards: the secessionists/Confederates who “denied that God made the black man a man at all” would now see “the black man… coming… with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war.” By his actions, and those of the “black (and)… white sons” of the Union, “the (American) flag which so long has defended their institutions (i.e., slavery)” would become an “emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white.”

And if he suffered and even died while doing his duty, that was a price that he – and his wife – would have to pay.

This is a remarkable piece of writing; delve in. From the Weekly Anglo-American, New York, NY, April 18, 1863:

My Dear Wife

When I wrote you the last letter I was quite sick, And I did not to know as I should ever be able to write to you again; but I am much better now and write to relieve your mind… I shall come home, if permitted to come home, but as soon as my health will admit, will return to duty.

Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid for farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free. The government has torn down the only barrier that existed against us as a people. When slavery passes away, the prejudices that belonged to it must follow. The government calls for the colored man’s help and, if he is not a fool, he will give it.

… The white man thought again how to get his money without his own dear self having to broil beneath a hot sun or see his wife or delicate child stoop to the labor of picking the cotton from the field or gathering rice from its damp bed. The Indian had failed him; the few captives they took died when they came to forced labor upon them, that’s proving the red man unable to do the labor in those climes. His fiend-like eyes fell upon the black man. Thought he, “I have it. We will get some of the states that cannot grow these plants and do not need as many hands to help them as we do, to raise blacks for us, and we will purchase these of them, and they will keep their mouths shut about this liberty that was only meant for us and our children.”

They denied that God made the black man a man at all, and brought their most learned judges and doctors of the gospel and laws to attempt to prove by them that the sons of Africa were not even human. They try to convince the world that the black man sprang from the brute creation; that the kings and princes and noble sons of the sunny land sprang from the loins of monkeys and apes, who made the war with each other and slaves of each other in their mother country and it was but right to buy and steal the children of apes or monkeys and to enslave them.

How do you fancy, wife, the idea of being part ape or monkey? I have often heard our grandmother tell what a noble man your great-grandfather was, how much he knew and was respected by his neighbors and the white man that owned him, and how her own father, who followed the condition of his father, who died a slave, suffered before he bought his freedom; how she and her little sisters and brothers were robbed of her hard-earned a property by one who cared not for the rights of the black child. Tell grandmother that Maimi will strike for her wrongs as well as for those of others.

They shall see these gentle monkeys, that they thought they had so fast in chains and fetters, coming on a long visit to them, with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war. Not one at a time cringing like whipped hounds as we were, but by the thousands and if that doesn’t suffice, by millions. Like Pharaoh’s lice, we shall be found in all his palaces, will be his terror and his torment; he shall yet wish he had never heard of us. We will never forsake him, until he repents in sackcloth and ashes his crime of taking from us our manhood and reducing us to the brute creation. Continue reading

Portaits from Natchez, Mississippi

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Studio portrait of African American young girl; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413114a

These fine portraits of African American females are from the Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, a set of photographs in the Special Collections of the Louisiana State University Libraries.

The Gandy Collection contains photos from the Gurney and Norman studios, and features images from the Natchez, Mississippi area where the studios were located. As noted at the LSU web page describing the collection,

Brothers Henry and M. J. Gurney established a daguerreotype studio in Natchez in 1851 and began recording the lives of their fellow citizens using the latest in photographic technology. The Civil War brought economic disaster and social upheaval to the region, but Natchez quickly recovered.

In 1870, Henry Gurney hired a new employee, Henry Norman, and by 1876 Norman had opened his own studio, buying out Gurney’s studio to do so. Henry Norman became the best-known photographer in the region. When he died in 1913, his son Earl inherited the studio. Earl, like his father, became widely known for his photographic skills and left images spanning nearly 40 years.

The photographs were taken by the Norman Studios. The undated images were taken in the late 19th century or early 20th century.

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Studio portrait of African American woman in long formal and feather fan hat; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413103a

These photos were taken in the 1890s and 1900s. In 1900, Natchez had a population of 12,200 persons; it was one of just ten places in Mississippi whose population exceeded 4,000 people, according to the New International Encyclopædia, Volume 13. Its size and commerce (it was a Mississippi River port for cotton and other products) aided the development of African American middle class in the city. As with many Americans who could afford it, blacks from the Natchez area used photography to capture their images for posterity.

Of course, Mississippi at the time was in the midst of developing a Jim Crow system that would become infamous by the mid-20th century. But the grace and dignity personified in these images shows that, at least for a few moments, that African Americans could project a high sense of self and esteem that could help carry them through the hard times their community endured.

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Studio portrait of African American young girl standing and holding a fan; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413109a

Continue reading

Black Moses Barbie, by Pierre Bennu

Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (1 of 3)
From YouTube: This commercial for a Black Moses Barbie toy celebrating the legacy of Harriet Tubman is part of Pierre Bennu’s larger series of paintings and films deconstructing and re-envisioning images of people of color in commercial and pop culture.
Two more commercials for this hypothetical toy will be posted throughout Black History Month 2011.
Directed, written, shot & storyboard by: Pierre Bennu

These three videos are by the African American artist Pierre Bennu. They take a comedic/satiric look at Harriet Tubman and the beloved Barbie doll.The videos have references to pop culture that some viewers may not recognize. For example, the third video might require a web search for Billy Dee Williams and the 1975 movie Mahogany before you “get” it.

The humor might not be to everyone’s taste, but I got a good laugh. An article in the Huffington Post discusses the videos:

Bennu, who is also known for his videos “Sun Moon Child” (music by Imani Uziri) and Gregory Porter’s “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” shares the artistic sensibilities with a generation of Black artists like Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Hank Willis Thomas, who have sought to turn Black stereotypes, Black history and Black trauma into vehicles of satire, humor and ultimately cultural resistance. As Glenda Carpio notes in her book Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2008), “Black American humor began as a wrested freedom, the freedom to laugh at that which was unjust and cruel in order to create distance from what would otherwise obliterate a sense of self and community.”

Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (2 of 3)

Black Moses Barbie (Harriet Tubman Commercial) (3 of 3)

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

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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

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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:

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.

Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans

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“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… (the) medical problems (of previously enslaved Union veterans) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.