A Durable Memento

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

Augustus Washington

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.

Slowly, as one source led to another, the story emerged. Washington went to school in Trenton, where he was rebuffed at age 12 or 13 when he tried to buy a Latin grammar ("Won't English books do for you?" the bookseller asked). He eventually fell victim to the increasing polarization of the country over slavery. Told he could come to school only after the white students left, he wound up teaching other African-Americans in a school he organized himself.

An abolitionist advised him to go to the renowned Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, where he continued his studies, and after more struggles he was admitted to Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, moving on to Dartmouth College there in 1843. He was the only black student enrolled there at the time.

"That winter — the college took a three-month winter break — he had to make money to pay his educational costs, so he learned the daguerreotype business," says Shumard.

But he could not pursue both the business and his studies. Unable to meet his college expenses, he left Dartmouth in the fall of 1844.

Washington taught in Hartford for a while, then opened a daguerrean studio there in 1846. Shumard discovered what is believed to be his first advertisement, in a Hartford newspaper from December 24, 1846. (Previous researchers thought his daguerrean activity there began in 1847.)

Business was good, but the country was beginning to fall apart. With the enactment of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, life for free blacks became more dangerous. Even a freeborn businessman in New England could be snatched off the street and claimed as a slave.

Washington, who married in 1850, had long considered finding a place where African-Americans could develop and prosper unfettered by racism. He now decided to go to the already established republic of Liberia. Settled by the first African-American immigrants in 1822, Liberia had become an independent republic in 1847. Washington sailed for Liberia with his wife and children in 1853. He took along his daguerrean apparatus.

At this point, the journal of the colonization society that founded Liberia, the African Repository, provided the researcher with great riches. For this self-made man soon became a leader in his new homeland. He developed a large farm on the Saint Paul River. He traveled to Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone to make pictures during the wet season, returning to farm his sugar plantation in the dry months. He employed up to 60 workers and built a brick house for his family. Then he was elected to the Liberian House of Representatives, became its speaker and moved up to the Senate.

"I found him mentioned repeatedly in the African Repository," Shumard says, "and I read so much that I got to recognize references to him even without the name. Visitors would describe in letters how they met him and his wife at his home in the White Plains settlement. Then I found what I was looking for, which no one seemed to know: a report of his death."

It was a great day for research but a sad day for the researcher. "I didn't know whether to pop champagne or hang crepe," she says. Washington, by this time owner and editor of the New Era newspaper, died at Monrovia, the capital, June 7, 1875. His passing was described in the African Repository as "a calamitous event for his family and a severe loss to Western Africa generally."

So far, no one has found an image of the photographer. But the portraits we do have are revealing. The celebrated portrait of John Brown, taken when he lived in Springfield, Massachusetts (1846-48), shows a flag believed to be the banner of Brown's proposed Underground Railroad organization. Many of the Hartford images reflect the popular poses of the day. The Hartford men generally are posed frontally with one forearm resting on a table, the other on the thigh. Women are turned slightly, their heads often tilted. No one smiles: a daguerreotype was a rare event in most lives, and one didn't want to go down in history grinning. Besides, the exposures took 5 to 15 seconds.

Carol Johnson, an assistant curator at the Library of Congress, has made an intriguing discovery about daguerreotypes of Liberian statesmen attributed to Washington in the library's collection. The rather eccentric poses match those in a watercolor study that she unearthed for a major group portrait of the Liberian Senate. Thus, Senator Roye stands with his hand raised in gesture just as he appears in the watercolor study depicting the Senate in action. Others, seated at their desks, also assume the same poses in both the daguerreotypes and the study.

Shumard has advertised for Washington's daguerreotypes in the Daguerreian Society newsletter and has had responses from collectors in California and Massachusetts. And, from a collector in New York, the Smithsonian has acquired a significant group of Washington's images, several of which will be displayed in the exhibition, which runs until January 2, 2000.

"I hope the show will bring some more Augustus Washington daguerreotypes out of the woodwork," Shumard says. Research is forever.

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