Is This a Photograph of North Carolina Slaves?

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  The photo of the two boys is more subtle, Holzer said, which may be why it wasn’t widely circulated and remained unpublished for so long.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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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12 comments… add one
  • Leonard Lanier Jun 16, 2010 @ 6:13

    Serious questions continue to arise about the authenticity of this photograph. Today’s Charlotte Observer contains an overview of the known issues,

    The article also references a blog discussion over at USAToday. The link for that blog is listed below,

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2010 @ 7:42

      Thanks for the links, Leonard.

  • Tim Abbott Jun 12, 2010 @ 3:06

    To follow up on the previous comment, here are a few things to consider about the photograph.

    The wildly popular carte de visite format was popularized in 1859, so it is unlikely than an unaltered photograph of this sort predates that time. The Brady name is the most recognized photographer and photographic enterprise of the Civil War. He was a pioneer of the form and also the business of early photography. His images I understand were usually identified “Photo by Brady”. He also went bankrupt in the decade after the war and is not known to have made any forays to document slavery or reconstruction. He had many photographers working for him, so it could have been made by another member of his studio, but it does make me wonder about its authenticity.

    And then there is the little problem with the banana plantation these boys are sitting in. Caribbean, Yes. Carolinia, No.

    What the photograph truly depicts is the generic horror of rural poverty.

    • Richard Jun 12, 2010 @ 7:38

      You make a good point about the banana plantation, that ends it right there for me. $30,000 and $20,000. You would think someone paying that kind of money would hire some experts.

      • Andy Hall Jun 12, 2010 @ 17:28

        Richard, if you Google the collector, he’s described as an “expert” on eleventy-seven different topics. I have no idea whether this guy believes his own press releases or not, but right now this photo is the No. 1 e-mailed story on Yahoo! News, and I suspect that’s really all that matters to him. I’m sure the identification will be thoroughly and formally debunked by professionals, but that won’t get any headlines, and the collector will have moved on to something different with which to make a splash.

        Banana trees. Jeeez. [shakes head]

        • Richard Jun 13, 2010 @ 18:18

          Well, I see this photo made the Fayetteville paper this morning.

  • Vince S Jun 11, 2010 @ 18:53

    If you ever get a chance to sit down with a Civil War photography collector and see his or her collection, be sure to take the opportunity to become literate in the commercial (e.g., backmarks, borders) and technological aspects (e.g., indoor/outdoor issues) of 1860s photography. It changed so drastically over the decade that you can usually date photos with decent precision just by a quick glance.

    Just another tool for the Civil War historian’s toolbox…

  • Mary Jun 11, 2010 @ 17:44

    It would be interesting to see a picture of 2 young boys during this period in Africa.

  • Ed Jun 11, 2010 @ 17:06

    Those two kids are black Confederate drummer boys.

  • Andy Hall Jun 11, 2010 @ 14:59

    Am I being cynical to point out that, important and valuable as they are as individual pieces, both the image and the sale document are worth significantly more if they go together?

    This is the same collector who made a big news splash a couple of years ago by buying what he claimed was an, um, compromising film of Marylin Monroe, who insisted his only motivation was “to keep it private” — though he’s apparently not so committed to that goal not to do interviews about it, or to actually destroy it.

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t take this guy too seriously, no matter how deep his pockets.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2010 @ 15:58


      I was surprised by how quickly people fell into line around this narrative.

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