This week, we’re exploring another overlooked angle of antebellum American history: how photography transformed the abolitionist movement—and in particular, how a photograph of one seven-year-old girl was used to gain a white audience’s sympathy. Jessie Morgan-Owens, a photographer and a historian, has written a book about that little girl, Mary Mildred Williams: Girl in Black and White, so named for the tones of daguerreotype, and of Mary herself—who looked white, though she was born into slavery. The story of how Senator Charles Sumner used Mary to advance his antislavery cause tells us a lot about the politics of the 19th century.
Go beyond the episode:
- Jessie Morgan-Owens’s Girl in Black and White
- Read Frederick Douglass’s speech, “Pictures and Progress,” delivered in Boston in 1861, and the introduction to Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Williams’s anthology of Douglass’s writing on photography (and if you’re feeling particularly brave, try parsing Douglass’s own manuscript at the Library of Congress)
- As the most photographed man of the 19th century, Douglass left behind a voluminous photographic record, collected in Picturing Frederick Douglass
- Check out Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida for a French post-structuralist spin, or W. J. T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory for a contemporary take on visual representation
- Sojourner Truth supported herself by selling cartes de visite, in which she’s pictured wearing an iconic white cap and shawl (which she probably knit herself, given that she spun 100 pounds of wool to buy her freedom)
- The Mirror of Race is an online collection of early photographs about race in America, including critical commentary
- Morgan-Owens also edited the 2017 reissue of Mary Hayden Green Pike’s novel Ida May, about a girl whom Charles Sumner compared Mary Mildred Williams
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