Images of African-Americans Illuminate a Proud Past

"It is as though a darkened veil is before us and these photographs have come together as a new light," says Jackie Napolean Wilson, referring to the images in his book Hidden Witness: African-American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War, due to be published in January by St. Martin's Press. So lacking are African-Americans from the visual record of the Civil War that "if one were to make a photographic assessment of America at that time, one might ponder where the subjects of this great conflict were," writes Wilson. He believes that we must have an accurate view of history, in all its complexity.

The daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes shown here, dating from c. 1845 to c. 1865, are unique in their depiction of the broad range of African-American life, according to Deborah Willis, an associate director of the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African-American History and Culture. The man with medal and cornet, above, was but one of many black firefighters in the mid-19th century. One photograph (top right) is reminiscent of classic images of the Madonna and Child. The woman is thought to be cradling her own child, making this a rare historical image. African-Americans often managed to maintain families despite the illegality of slave marriage and the common practice of selling off slaves' children.

American history education has long told the story of remarkable individuals like Sojourner Truth and Nat Turner, but Hidden Witness presents images of ordinary African-Americans who were integral parts of the culture, economy and development of this country, and who were heroic in their everyday resistance to subjugation. The pictures in this collection allow us to see the faces of the skilled craftspeople who labored to provide for their families, the field slaves who sewed quilts and ran illegal midnight schools, the free blacks who worked to buy their freedom and lived under constant threat, and the free blacks who owned businesses and formed aid societies. Four and a half million African-Americans resided in this country at the time of the Civil War, and we can now see that they were hiding in plain sight.

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