I remember the disappointment on the faces of some of my students when I revealed that many of the images used by Ken Burns in his documentary to accompany his narrative about slavery were actually from the postwar period. As horrified as we are by the harsh reality of slavery we still seek a connection with that past. We want to understand the human dimension of this sad chapter of American history. It’s no surprise that the release of an image purportedly of two young slave children from North Carolina would receive so much attention. The photograph even comes with a bill of sale that is attributed to one of the two children. New York collector Keya Morgan said he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document.
Representatives of the historical community were quick to offer their own assessment of the document’s significance:
Such photos were circulated in the North by abolitionists to garner support for the Union during the Civil War, said Harold Holzer, an author of several books about Lincoln. Holzer works as an administrator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most of the photos depicted adult slaves who had been beaten or whipped, he said. The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long. “To me, it’s such a moving and astonishing picture,” he said.
Ron Soodalter, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., said the photo depicts the reality of slavery. “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick or choose,” said Soodalter, who has written several books on historic and modern slavery. “This was a generic horror. It victimized the old, the young.”
I posted this story on my Facebook page and agreed with others that the image was probably from the postwar period. Leonard Lanier offered the following comment after going back to the 1850 Slave Schedule:
I have my doubts over whether the slave bill of sale goes with the photograph. The 1850 Slave Schedule for Brunswick County, NC lists a “George W. Potter” as the owner of seven slaves, including two boys aged 16 and 14. The census also lists two adult male slaves aged 24 and 30. Considering the large sum paid Potter’s estate administrator in .1854, $1150, for “John” I think the bill of sale is for one of these older men. Such a high price reflects their value as able field hands. However, either man is clearly too old by 1860 to be the subject of the photograph.
It’s not conclusive, but it should lead to further questions. Either way it is a fascinating photograph and a wonderful find.