Highlights Slave Era Photography in its Weekly Free Article

Nov. 24, 2006 – November 24, 2006–They were whipped for spilling coffee into a saucer as they served dinner. They were whipped for learning to read. They were whipped for praying out loud.

Well into their 80’s dozens of former black slaves relived and retold their stories in the 1930s oral history “Bullwhip Days, The Slaves Remember.” Edited by James Mellon, the testimonies were collected by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

“I have heard a heap of people say they wouldn’t take the treatment what the slaves took,” said one slave, “but they woulda took it or death. If they had been there, they woulda took the very same treatment.”

‘The master, he says we is all free, but dat it don’t mean we is white, and it don’t mean we is equal,” said another slave.

Freedom for blacks was eventually legislated in America but equal rights were never guaranteed.

The face of slavery not only showed up in oral testimonies like “Bullwhip Days” but also in early photography. Through images of black tradesmen, black Civil War soldiers, slaves fleeing slavery and plantation workers, the powerful face of bondage was documented.

Early photography, because it was expensive and difficult was rarely informal. There was usually a reason for a photograph. With the new glass-plate and albumen print process of the mid-1850’s mass-production became doable.

Even so, early black photography from the 1840’s through the 1870’s is rare. When photos are found, they’re often staged and show the biases of the photographer or printmaker.

The powerful images speak for themselves. It’s a priceless as well as embarrassing legacy for blacks and whites.

On Aug. 26, Early American History Auctions, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., featured a selection of early black photography and ephemera in its mail bid and internet auction of autographs, coins, currency and Americana.

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