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A Durable Memento

An upcoming exhibition honors the legacy of an American artist who found freedom in Liberia

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Sometimes you fall in love with a subject and can't stop yourself: you track down every tiny lead, every obscure reference, every footnote until you feel like a maniac. Remember the character in George Eliot's Middlemarch who never could end his research and died with his lifework unwritten? A deadline helps. Ann Shumard has to finish her research on daguerreotypist Augustus Washington in time for the exhibition about him opening September 24. Already she is forcing herself to organize the material she has on hand. And there is a lot.

In 1996 the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) bought Washington's daguerreotype of John Brown, the earliest known likeness ( Smithsonian, August 1997). Public response was so enthusiastic that the curators decided to try to arrange the first exhibition of Washington's work. When she started the research, Shumard, NPG's assistant curator of photographs, knew little about Washington except that he was a free black man who worked as a daguerreotypist in Hartford, Connecticut, and later immigrated to Liberia.

Published material was limited, but she found two articles focusing on Washington's years in Hartford, which led her to the Connecticut Historical Society, a source of more Washington daguerreotypes and research material. Another article gave Shumard her first detailed look at Washington's life in Liberia. Things were beginning to take shape.

Determined to find connections between the artist and his subjects, Shumard didn't stop with the information at hand. "Full biographical information on the sitters had not been gathered," recalls Shumard, who spent several days copying information from the Connecticut Historical Society's genealogy collections, bound newspaper volumes and scrapbooks.

The fate of one sitter, Sarah Waterman, was surmised in the Hartford Weekly Courant. The niece of a successful insurance pioneer, she married a sea captain, was shipwrecked with him off China on an island whose inhabitants were "pirates almost by profession," and was most likely murdered, the paper reported. And then, in the Connecticut State Library, Shumard found a treasure that she had seen cited in a footnote: a published letter by Washington telling the story of his early life.

It's not hard to imagine Shumard's excitement. Even in recalling the moment, her eyes flash. It's not often that we get to hear the actual voice, even on paper, of people buried in the past.

"Well, I copied that letter down," she tells me, "and then I came across other letters he'd written. I whirled so much microfilm past my eyes that I got seasick. It was so important to me to contribute something beyond what others had discovered. And no one had told his complete story from start to finish."

His life story is part of what Shumard hopes to share in the NPG exhibition "A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist."

Augustus Washington was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1820 or 1821. His father had been a slave in Virginia. His mother was a native of South Asia, but he says no more about her. She probably died young. His stepmother, described by Washington as "an excellent Christian woman of Indian, white and negro extraction," had also been a slave.

"I wondered if Washington's father would turn up in the 1830 census," Shumard says, "so I got a Smithsonian volunteer, Christopher Saks, to comb through the microfilmed census ledgers at the National Archives. And he found a Christian Washington, the only free African-American male with that surname residing in Trenton, with a wife, son and daughter. Augustus did have a sister. It all seems to match, but further research is needed," Shumard warns.

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