Portraits of Slavery
Photographs depicting enslaved people and slavery in the American South are relatively rare. Even rarer still are identified photographs of enslaved people. The names and faces of enslaved or formerly enslaved people are important emotional touchstones that make the history of slavery in the United States real.
Photography was a new and wildly popular technology in the mid 1800s. Abolitionists and slave owners used photography to shape both negative and positive narratives around slavery. Freedmen, such as Frederick Douglass, recognized the power of portraiture to lend themselves and their writings dignity.
These photographs and images give a humanizing face to the subject. The lithograph of Cheapside, in Lexington, Kentucky, shows one of the largest slave markets in the American South where men, women, and children were sold. The tintype of the enslaved girls given Harriet Pindar of Savannah, upon her marriage, is an example of plantation owners using photography to document their property. The stereo card of Aaron Dupuy shows Henry Clay’s former body servant following his emancipation in the 1860s. His wife Charlotte Dupuy sued Henry Clay in 1829 for her freedom based on an agreement with her previous owner. She eventually lost her case, but Clay emancipated her in 1840 along with one of her children. However, Aaron waited until Clay’s death in 1852 to reunite with his family. The photograph of refugees during the Civil War at Camp Nelson show the impact of the Civil War and the hope for freedom. Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, Kentucky, was a camp that trained African-American units to fight for the Union. Many soldiers brought their families with them. The camp also drew many enslaved people fleeing from their owners.