Annette John-Hall: Book explores how ex-slaves saw freedom

A photo from "Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery," created by historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.
A photo from "Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery," created by historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer.
Posted: January 25, 2013

The entire treatment of slavery in my junior high history books - crack sources of information that they were - consisted of one or two illustrations of nameless black people, in chains, standing on auction blocks or picking cotton. Nary a mention of who the enslaved were, how they felt about their lives, or whether they had any dreams or aspirations.

What we were required to memorize was that Abraham Lincoln freed us.

Now here we are, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation (issued Jan. 1, 1863), and the story of freedom is again being told through the eyes of those whose ancestors were never enslaved.

The multi-Oscar-nominated film Lincoln celebrates the political prowess and moral fortitude of the 16th president of the United States as he ended centuries of black bondage during the Civil War.

In Lincoln, we see few black people, except for some Union soldiers, until very late in the film. A group of nameless, speechless (albeit free and well-dressed) black Washingtonians gather in the balcony of the House to witness the raucous passage of the 13th Amendment, which, once it was ratified by enough states, would eventually abolish slavery. Stress falls not on these people and their reactions, but on the result of the president's heroic efforts.

Like the film, history ignores the very soul of the story: the experience of African Americans themselves, whose voices and stories were ignored and ultimately lost.

Now comes a book to help fill in the gaps. For Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer spent five years amassing nearly 150 photographs, from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal of the 1930s, to illustrate the impact of emancipation on African Americans and how they represented themselves.

"We wanted to imagine what freedom looked like for these people," says Willis, a North Philly native, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University, and a leading curator of African American images. "The people saving their money, going to a photographer's studio, getting dressed and forming a biography - reimagining themselves as free people."

What emerges are images of preserved family connections, portraits of the resilience and determination of newly freed blacks.

I was especially taken with an image of a young woman in her Sunday best sitting between two white men, one of whom appears to be holding a gun to her head.

But the two men were soldiers from Wisconsin's 22d Infantry Regiment, and they were escorting the escaped teenage slave - who had disguised herself as a boy - from Kentucky to Cincinnati in 1862. They'd been assigned to take her to an Underground Railroad safe haven. The photographer and abolitionist J.P. Ball posed the soldiers to hold their pistols high, symbolizing bravery in protecting their young charge.

"The images allowed us to show [African Americans] in a way that written sources don't yield that same kind of complexity," says Krauthamer, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. "When you see a picture of a washerwoman slave who got herself in the Union army, earned her freedom, and was part of the war effort, that's deep."

"Somebody asked me, 'Why are you doing a book on slavery? Nobody wants to hear a downtrodden story,' " Willis says. "But this is a triumphant story."

Consider the photo on the book's cover, of a woman in a calico dress, posture upright, gaze fixed, large hands worn from hours wringing laundry for the Union army. Prominent on her blouse is an American flag pin.

She wanted viewers to see that pin. Like millions of people enslaved, freed, and somewhere between, she wasn't sitting passively, waiting for a country, for freedom. She was, proudly, defiantly, proclaiming it for herself.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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