AFRICAN-AMERICANS and PHOTOGRAPHY
H. H. Arneson, in his book The History of Modern Art, states that in the early years of photography English photographers like Oscar Reglander assembled academic, multi-figured reconstructions of history, whose purpose included pretensions to high moral purpose.(1) Yet it is in the realist properties of photography, when it is used to record history, where we are challenged to the moral purpose of art, and no more so than of the history of African-Americans in photography. From the beginnings of photography in the United States, it has recorded African-Americans’ struggle for their place in the sun; from the days of sifting cotton for the gin, to the brigades of colored cavalry men in the Civil War, to magnificent portraits of Frederick Douglass, to pathetic photographs of lynched black men hanging from telephone poles turned into postcards by Southern rural whites, to a cavalcade of photographs taken by government sources of African-Americans fighting and dying for their country during World War II, to simple anecdotal images taken by strangers. The history of photography has paralleled the long emancipation of African-Americans. Photography is the folk art of the Industrial Revolution.
PERIOD I-SLAVERY (Pre-Civil War)
Auction & Negro Sales
This image of the Auction & Negro Sales shop is shocking in that it confronts the viewer with the reality of how commonplace and accepted slavery was. in the Old South The store is on a street alongside shops selling china, glass, and other items. it looks as if one of the African-Americans for sale is sitting tied to a chair outside of the store, symbolizing with his slumped hopeless posture the sad plight of African-Americans in that period of slavery. The emptiness around him in the market, void of people and animals, shows the vacancy of his future, even after the war, with the deeds of the Ku Klux Klan soon approaching.
Slaves preparing cotton for the gin at the Smith Plantation
In this photograph a group of slaves are preparing cotton for the gin at the Smith Plantation during Ante-bellum times. You can see the sun shining brilliantly and the warm long-sleeved clothes they’re wearing. The tree which would have shaded them had all of it’s limbs butchered off. The African-American’s are hunched over, sitting in the cotton. This image shows the hard work that slaves endured, and the harsh conditions they were subjected to, as opposed to the usual contemporary attempt to portray them as contented.
Fugitive African-Americans Fording the Rappahannock
This photograph depicts the struggle and determination of fugitive slaves fording the Rappahannock River. It shows the courage African-Americans possessed to be able to pack the bare necessities and set out on a journey to the North for freedom, having to hide constantly from enemies along the way. The ties amongst African-Americans, their need for freedom and liberty, was powerful and astounding. These trips to the North were treacherous and long. They had to travel in poor conditions, constantly on their guard, through numerous states. Often slaves journeying for freedom would seek the aid of the underground railroad, which was an informal system of helping slaves escape to the North and Canada, in which people helped slaves providing them with food, clothing, directions and hiding places. Harriet Tubman was the most famous black leader of the underground railroad, she was a runaway slave herself, but she returned to the South 19 times to help over 300 slaves escape to freedom.
PERIOD III – CIVIL WAR (Fighting For Freedom)
Bodies on the Field at Gettysburg
This photograph shows the extent of casualties, both Confederate or Union men, during the Civil War. This battle was fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was quite an important victory for the Union. There are a few horses and men still standing in the background, but they are far outnumbered by the corpses. The photo was a part of Matthew Brady’s attempt to show both the value of photography and to document the war, in the first foray into wartime photojournalism.
Bermuda Hundred, Virginia – African-American
Teamsters Near the Signal Tower
This photograph is of the African-American teamsters near the signal tower in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia. Teamsters ran mule teams hauling cargo wagons. It shows another aspect of African-American’s lives, aside from those on plantations. This was another very grueling job which Atiican-American’s were forced to do. You can see the great size required of the men to carry out this labor.
Antiem, Maryland – Bodies of Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial
This is another photograph illustrating the numerous people dying in the Civil War. This is a line of Confederate dead bodies lined up for the burial after the battle at Antiem, Maryland. Cleaning up the battlefield after the battle was a gruesome and difficult task, both emotionally and physically. And of course, notice who does that work.
Young Frederick Douglass
This photograph is of a very young Frederick Douglass, originally born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. It’s believed that he was born in 1818 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, and he died in 1895 at the approximate age of 77. He was born a slave, but in 1838 he fled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, hence the name change to mask his identity. Douglass became the leading spokesman o fAfrican-American’s in his lifetime, and an important abolitionist. He gave impressive speeches in favor of racial equality and the freedom of African-Americans. He also wrote books such as his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He founded an antislavery newspaper, the North Star, in New York in the 1850s. He helped with the underground railroad, and was always involved in some activity to help African-Americans. He publicized the plight of enslaved African-Americans before the war. Abolitionists such as Douglass were very important because they made everyone aware of the fact that the current treatment of African-Americans was wrong.
Arlington, Virginia – Band of “107th” US Colored Infantry at Fort Corcoran
This is a photograph of the band of 107″ US Colored Infantry at Fort Covcoran in Arlington, Virginia. This is a group of Union soldiers during the Civil War. . African-American and Anglo-Saxon soldiers are segregated, nonetheless they are fighting for their enslaved people’s freedom, which will be a long time coming. This photograph shows the pride of the soldiers.
PERIOD IV- POST CIVIL WAR (Ex-slaves role in society)
African-American boxing champions at Great Lake, Illinois
This is a photograph of the African-American boxing champions at Great Lake, Illinois around 1930. This image shows the path by which African Americans sought participation in mainstream society. They are beginning to participate in sports, and take pride in their achievements, mainly thanks to Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ. The young man on the far right is the Anglo-Saxon fighter Bob Sikes, which shows the beginning of a mingling of races in athletics and other aspects of society, and the beginning of an end to segregation. A good example of the camaraderie that existed in boxing between African-Americans and white people is the case of Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion, and Bob Sikes, the Southern States heavyweight champion. Sikes was Louis’ sparring partner in the late 1930s, and they were friends all their lives(2). At this time boxing was the only sport open to African-Americans where they could excel and be rewarded. Joe Lewis inspired an influx of African-American men into this sport. The photograph pictured is from 1943, when these boxers were members of the armed forces.
PERIOD V – WORLD WAR II
(African-Americans Fight For Their Country)
Marines on the beach at Iwo Jima
Societies tend to unite during times of war, and African-Americans and Anglo-Saxons united during World War II, though not in the same regiment. Both groups were fighting for a good cause and to help humanity. They were all representing the whole of their country. This photograph shows Marines relaxing and organizing their supplies on the beach at Iwo Jima. This illustrates the hard work and contributions of African-American soldiers during World War II.
The African-Americans are once again fighting for their country.
The First African-American US Marine
This is a photograph of the first African-American US Marine, who was inducted into the formerly all-white marines. This was a giant step towards the equality of African-Americans.
This shows an African-American working for the government and trailblazing the roads of the future .
A Platoon of African-American Troops Surround a Farmhouse in France
This photograph shows a platoon of African-American troops surrounding a farmhouse in France during World War II. This shows the valor, courage and importance of African- Americans to the US war effort. Going to war to defend one’s country is a great honor, and African-Americans were once again exercising this privilege. This image shows the actual surroundings in which they were fighting. It allows the viewer to really feel the tense exhausted state of the soldiers.
1. Arneson, H. H., The History of Modern Art 3rd ed., (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986), p. 25.
2. Report of David Taylor, class teacher of this project. He is Bob Sikes cousin.