“As White As Their Masters”:
Visualizing the Color Line
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
People at the North are disposed to be incredulous when they hear of white slaves at the South: and yet a little reflection would convince them not only that there must be such slaves under the present system, but that in process of time a large proportion of the slaves must be as white as their masters.
—William Jay, Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery (1853)
On January 30, 1864, Harper’s Weekly printed an engraving of a photograph, entitled “Emancipated Slaves, White and Colored,” depicting three adults and five children who had been brought north from Louisiana by Colonel George H. Hanks and set free by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. The group made a series of public appearances and were photographed as part of a campaign to raise funds for public schools for freed slaves, the first of which was established by Major General Banks in October 1863. The hope was, writes Kathleen Collins in “Portraits of Slave Children,” that “these enigmatic portraits of Caucasian-featured children” would galvanize “Northern benefactors to contribute to the future of a race to which these children found themselves arbitrarily confined” (207). The “white slaves” depicted in the engraving were described by the editor of Harper’s as being “as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children” (66). “Yet,” he continued, “the ‘chivalry,’ the ‘gentlemen’ of the Slave States, by the awful logic of the system, doom them all to the fate of swine; and, so far as they can, the parents and brothers of these little ones destroy the light of humanity in their souls” (66). In comparing these unfortunate slave children to those of its subscribers, the magazine hoped to stir their emotions against a system so unconscionable that it doomed its own children to a life of unspeakable cruelty.
The “all-but-white” slaves depicted in the engraving embodied two of the more preposterous social and legal fictions of race associated with slavery: the “one-drop rule” and the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem. Instituted during slavery and later used to buttress the Jim Crow system of segregation, the “one-drop rule,” explains F. James Davis in Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition, classified persons with any degree of African ancestry as black (5). Because slavery was a powerful economic institution, it was in the slaveholder’s best interest to be able to define as many individuals as black, and therefore as slaves, as possible. According to Joel Williamson, in New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States, “Slavery had the power to make all slaves black regardless of their seeming whiteness” (75). The antebellum South promoted the “one-drop rule” as a way of enlarging the slave population by enslaving all racially mixed persons, regardless of the admixture of white and black blood. Like the “one-drop rule,” the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem was also contrived as a means of increasing the number of slaves and of firmly drawing the color line. Established by Virginia law in 1662, the law of partus sequitur ventrem decreed that an individual’s status as slave or free was to be determined by the status of his or her mother. The law read as follows: “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by the present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” (Hening, 170). Universally accepted throughout the southern United States, the partus law sealed the fate of every child whose mother was a slave.
Substantiating the existence of “white slaves” in the South, the Harper’s engraving unveiled what the accompanying editorial referred to as one of the most loathsome secrets of the slave system—the “seduction” of “the most friendless and defenseless of women” by southern “gentlemen” (66). These “white slaves” were the incarnation of racial transgression in the South, extant proof of the sexual exploitation of black slave women by their white masters. Bent on exposing the depravity of the slave system, Harper’s afforded its subscribers “a terrible illustration of this truth of the outrage of all natural human affections” (66) in the form of the engraving. As if to reassure readers of its authenticity, the magazine printed brief biographies of the engraving’s subjects. The four “colored slaves,” three adults and one child, were described as follows:
WILSON CHINN is about 60 years old, he was “raised” by Isaac Howard of Woodford County, Kentucky. When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans. This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters “V. B. M.” Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp. Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.
MARY JOHNSON was cook in her master’s family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master. The occasion was that one morning she was half an hour behind time in bringing up his five o’clock cup of coffee. As the Union army approached she ran away from her master, and has since been employed by Colonel Hanks as cook.
ROBERT WHITEHEAD—the Reverend Mr. Whitehead perhaps we ought to style him, since he is a regularly ordained preacher—was born in Baltimore. He was taken to Norfolk, Virginia, by a Dr. A. F. N. Cook, and sold for $1525; from Norfolk he was taken to New Orleans, where he was bought for $1775 by a Dr. Leslie, who hired him out as house and ship painter. When he had earned and paid over that sum to his master, he suggested that a small present for himself would be quite appropriate. Dr. Leslie thought the request reasonable, and made him a donation of a whole quarter of a dollar. The reverend gentleman can read and write well, and is a very stirring speaker. Just now he belongs to the church militant, having enlisted in the United States army.
ISAAC WHITE is a black boy of eight years; but none the less intelligent than his whiter companions. He has been in school about seven months, and I venture to say that not one boy in fifty would have made as much improvement in that space of time. (71)
Of the four portraitures, the most disturbing are those depicting the slaves’ maltreatment at the hands of their owners. Because the scars on Mary Johnson’s arm and back are not visible in the engraving, the reader must rely on his or her imagination to envision the suffering she must have endured under her tyrannical master. In contrast, the initials “V.B.M” branded on Wilson Chinn’s forehead offer indisputable evidence of the torture inflicted upon him by the sadistic Volsey B. Marmillion.
In contrast to the “colored slaves,” who are racially marked by the color of their skin —and in the case of Wilson Chinn by his physical scars—the “white slaves” are free of any such racial signifiers. They are—with the exception of Augusta Broujey, who was slightly darker than the other three children—“to all appearance of unmixed white race” (71). The four “all-but-white” slave children were delineated as follows:
REBECCA HUGER is eleven years old, and was a slave in her father’s house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood. In the few months during which she has been at school she has learned to read well, and writes as neatly as most children of her age. Her mother and grandmother live in New Orleans, where they support themselves comfortably by their own labor. The grandmother, an intelligent mulatto, told Mr. Bacon that she had “raised” a large family of children, but these are all that are left to her.
ROSINA DOWNS is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair. Her father is in the rebel army. She has one sister as white as herself, and three brothers who are darker. Her mother, a bright mulatto, lives in New Orleans in a poor hut, and has hard work to support her family.
CHARLES TAYLOR is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky. Three out of five boys in any school in New York are darker than he. Yet this white boy, with his mother, as he declares, has been twice sold as a slave. First by his father and “owner,” Alexander Wethers, of Lewis County, Virginia, to a slave-trader named Harrison, who sold them to Mr. Thornhill of New Orleans. This man fled at the approach of our army, and his slaves were liberated by General Butler. The boy is decidedly intelligent, and though he has been at school less than a year he reads and writes very well. His mother is a mulatto; she had one daughter sold into Texas before she herself left Virginia, and one son who, she supposes, is with his father in Virginia.
AUGUSTA BROUJEY is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children. (71)
Immediately following the brief histories of these children was a plea to the public to purchase copies of the photograph that inspired the engraving. As striking as the engraving was, it in no way compared to the arresting quality of the original photograph, which breathed life into the figures depicted in Harper’s. The embodiment of slavery, M. H. Kimball’s subjects revealed more about their subjugation in their facial expressions than Harper’s could pen in a year.
In addition to the group photograph, several individual and smaller group photographs were also offered for sale, with the proceeds going to the Louisiana schools that supported the children. The first of the smaller group portraits shown here is entitled “White and Black Slaves from New Orleans,” and features Isaac, Mary, and Augusta (See Fig. 80). The fact that Augusta is quite obviously the “white slave” referred to in the caption is interesting considering she was apparently “too dark” for inclusion in the Philadelphia publicity tour. The next photograph, which is of “Isaac and Rosa,” reveals a stark contrast between the complexions of these two “Emancipated slave Children from the Free Schools of Louisiana” (See Fig. 31). Posed arm in arm with her decidedly darker companion, Rosa appears undeniably “white.” And yet, as Mary Niall Mitchell points out, in “‘Rosebloom and Pure White,’ Or So It Seemed,” the girl “could not have been ‘white’ since a white girl never would have appeared on the arm of a black boy” (374). Rosa’s racially ambiguous image, Mitchell contends, served as “the perfect metaphor” for, among other things, “blackness and whiteness,” “racial mixture and racial purity,” and “slavery and freedom” (374). It bears mentioning that the portrait of “Isaac and Rosa” to which Mitchell refers differs significantly from the photograph shown here. In the Kimball photograph reproduced in Mitchell’s article, Rosa is clad in a large hat and heavy cape that is buttoned up to her chin. In contrast, the photograph reproduced here depicts a bare-shouldered, bare-armed, and thus decidedly more vulnerable girl. Although Rosa’s arm is entangled with Isaac’s in both portraits, the photograph shown here would have disturbed the sensibilities of northern audiences much more than the one Mitchell depicts.
One of the more intriguing photographs of the New Orleans slaves is one taken by Charles Paxson called “Learning is Wealth” (See Fig. 85). Featuring Charley, Rebecca, and Rosa at the knee of Wilson Chinn, the portrait recognizes the importance of education to the slave’s salvation. With the exception of Rosa—whose wearied look more than likely stemmed from her exhaustion at having to pose for so many photographs—the group appears to be engaged in the lesson at hand. Commenting on the photograph in Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, Gwendolyn Du Bois Shaw writes:
the implication of the dark-skinned Wilson studying with a group of children implies a not-so-subtle racial hierarchy at work regarding ideas of race and in-born abilities to learn. In the photograph, which formally places Wilson on the same line as young Charley, he is presented as being at the same intellectual level as his lighter-skinned companions. (160)
As it was illegal in the South to teach a slave to read or write, it is significant that each of the emancipated slaves has in his or her possession a book.
The photographers’ fascination with the three whitest-looking of the slave children, as seen in “Learning is Wealth,” is underscored by the numerous individual and group portraits of them in existence. The most propagandistic of these photographs, taken by Paxson, had the children posing with the American flag. The first was a portrait of “Rebecca, A Slave Girl from New Orleans,” sitting adoringly before the flag with her arms crossed over her bosom. The caption read, “Oh! How I Love The Old Flag.” The second was a portrait of “Charley, A Slave Boy from New Orleans,” sitting solemnly before the flag, or “Freedom’s Banner,” as the caption referred to it. The third was a portrait of all three children, “Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. Slave Children from New Orleans,” each enshrouded in an American flag, with the caption “Our Protection” printed below. The portraits of the children posing with Old Glory were obviously meant to appeal to the potential donors’ patriotism.
Vignettes like the one of “Rebecca, Charley & Rosa, Slave Children from New Orleans” shown here captivated northern viewers (See Fig. 81). The ethereal quality of the vignette gave the children an almost cherubic appearance, which is perhaps why Paxson and fellow photographer J. E. McClees were so fond of the technique. Recognizing the popularity of portraiture, the photographers also opted to shoot the children in more traditional poses and settings. Aware of the success of portraits like the one of Fanny Virginia Casseopia Lawrence reproduced in this exhibition, they capitalized on this image of Victorian girlhood (See Fig. 73). “With each child framed in the vignettes and parlor scenes associated with white northern middle-class girlhood,” writes Mary Niall Mitchell, “these images of ‘slave girls’ brought antislavery into the homes, perhaps even the family photograph albums, of many white northerners” (379). A decade earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had introduced the “all-but-white” slave into the homes of northern readers in the character of Eliza. But Stowe’s fictional character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) only existed in the readers’ imaginations. Staring back at them from these photographs, Rebecca, Rosa, and Fanny became as real to northern viewers as their own daughters and nieces.
As indicated in the caption beneath her image, Fanny was redeemed by Catherine S. Lawrence and baptized in Brooklyn by Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in May 1863. In her autobiography, Sketch of Life and Labors of Miss Catherine S. Lawrence, Who In Early Life Distinguished Herself as a Bitter Opponent of Slavery and Intemperance, and Later in Life as a Nurse in the Late War; and for Other Patriotic and Philanthropic Services (1893), Lawrence recalls the first time she saw young Fanny, or Virga, as she refers to her. Inquiring as to the identity of a child she sees on the grounds of the hospital where she works, Lawrence asks, “But, Helen, see there, where did that white child come from?” (124). The washerwoman tells Lawrence that the girl and her two older sisters were left in the care of slaves and told to go into the Union lines. The woman then implores Lawrence to take the young girl, saying, “[T]hat little girl has no one to see to her. She will be glad to live with you, and then she is white and more like you white folks” (124). Lawrence dismisses her request on the grounds that she is too busy at the present time even to consider such a notion. A few days later, Helen returns with the girl’s older sister, who, with a tremor in her voice, tells Lawrence that she is unable to support herself and her two younger siblings. The twelve-year-old girl says that she thinks her sister will be better off with Lawrence, and beseeches her to take the girl. Remarking on the situation, Lawrence says, “They were represented to me as slave children. The little girl had flaxen hair and dark blue eyes, but dark complexion or terribly sunburned. I at once took the child, thinking I would find a home for her. She was a beautiful child and I soon became very much attached to her. She was not yet three years old” (126). Lawrence agrees to take the girl with the intention of finding a suitable place for her to live.
Unable to keep Virga with her at the hospital, Lawrence sends her to stay with a friend in Washington. A short time later, Lawrence goes to Washington, where she meets a gentleman from Brooklyn, who inquires about Virga. Lawrence offers the man a brief account of the girl’s history, telling him that Virga and her sisters were freed by their grandmother shortly before her death, and that they made their way to the Union lines soon after she was buried. “She was born in slavery?” the man asks incredulously, to which Lawrence replies, “I cannot say, for at this time of excitement in connection with my duties, and in the midst of war, I have no means of ascertaining” (130). “Well,” the man returns, “let me have her. I’ll give you my gold watch for her” (130). Scandalized by the gentleman’s offer, Lawrence retorts, “Oh my! That would be selling her; no, indeed, never” (130). The casual manner in which the man offers to trade his gold watch for the young girl accentuates Virga’s status as nothing more than a commodity. Once the man learns that she was born a slave, he immediately treats her as such.
Despite her seeming whiteness, Fanny Virginia Casseopia Lawrence is not afforded the same respect or consideration as a white child. Under the doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, she has inherited the abject status of her mother, and is thus condemned to a life of servitude. Although they made numerous public appearances, very little is known about the New Orleans slave children and Fanny Lawrence. Where did they come from? Who were their parents? The abolitionists, it seems, were more interested in what these “all-but-white” slaves represented than they were in the children themselves. They were living proof that generations of miscegenation had indeed produced a significant number of slaves who were every bit “as white as their masters” and every bit as enslaved as their mothers.
Collins, Kathleen. “Portraits of Slave Children.” History of Photography 9.3 (July-September 1985): 187–210.
Davis, F. James. Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991.
Fried, Gregory. “True Pictures.” Common-Place 2.2 (January 2002) http://common-place.org/vol-02/no-02/fried/fried-5.shtml.
Harper’s Weekly. Vol. 8 No. 370 (January 30, 1864): 66, 71.
Hening, William Waller. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619. Richmond, Virginia: Printed by and for Samuel Pleasants Junior, printer to the Commonwealth, 1809.
Jay, William. Miscellaneous Writings on Slavery. 1853. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.
Lawrence, Catherine S. Sketch of Life and Labors of Miss Catherine S. Lawrence, Who In Early Life Distinguished Herself as a Bitter Opponent of Slavery and Intemperance, and Later in Life as a Nurse in the Late War; and for Other Patriotic and Philanthropic Services. Albany, NY: Amasa J. Parker, Receiver of Weed, Parsons & Co., Printer, 1893.
Mitchell, Mary Niall. “‘Rosebloom and Pure White,’ Or So It Seemed.” American Quarterly 54.3 (September 2002): 369–410.
Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2006.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. 1852. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Williamson, Joel. New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States. London: The Free Press, 1980.
In “Portraits of Slave Children,” Collins erroneously remarks that “no portraits of two of the adults in the group, Mary Johnson and Robert Whitehead, have been found, except in the large group photograph” (192). While Collins may be correct in her assumption that no additional portraits have been discovered of Robert Whitehead, she is obviously mistaken concerning Mary Johnson.
According to Collins, Augusta was excluded from the tour, and appeared in “far fewer photographs than the others,” because she was “apparently too dark to move Philadelphia audiences” (189).
Paxson’s “Learning is Wealth” contrasts sharply with another photograph of Chinn taken by Kimball. “Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana,” depicts a manacled Wilson with a noose around his neck and various instruments of torture at his feet to emphasize the extent of his (and, by extension, other slaves’) persecution. Whereas in Kimball’s portrait Chinn is surrounded by instruments of persecution, here he is surrounded by implements of learning. Kimball’s photograph of Chinn can be seen in Gregory Fried’s “True Pictures” in Part V.
The individual portraits of Rebecca and Charley posed with the American flag are reproduced in Shaw’s Portraits of a People on page 159. The corresponding group portrait of Rosa, Charley, and Rebecca can be found in Mitchell’s “‘Rosebloom and Pure White’” on page 400.
In “‘Rosebloom and Pure White,’” Mitchell defines a vignette as “a style popular at the time in which only the head of the sitter was visible, surrounded by soft white space—a style that made young children look very much like angels” (369). Various individual and group vignettes of Rebecca, Rosa, and Charley, taken by both Paxson and McClees, are reproduced in Collins’s “Portraits of Slave Children” on pages 193, 194, 195, 198, and 199.