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Abolitionists put the flag to good use in 1863

December 1, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
One of the things that has always fascinated me about history is the untold stories of the people in those old photos.

Earlier this year the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom ran a piece about "the 'white' slave children of New Orleans" along with several old Civil War era photographs.

I had seen some of these pictures before but hadn't read the story about how they were taken. Following President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a group of Northerners and abolitionists took a group of freed slaves on a publicity tour to drum up financial support for a school for freed slaves in New Orleans. What's interesting here is that the abolitionists seem to have been early users of image and propaganda. The children in the photos were of mixed race, but they looked indistinguishable from other white children. The abolitionists who organized the tour believed that there would be more outrage on behalf of these children than there would be for darker ex-slaves. One of the girls had been enslaved by her own white slave owner father; another by a white half-brother. The abolitionists probably hoped that revealing the children's blood relationships with white slave owners would provoke shock and disgust. Another of the photos showed a fair looking 6-year-old girl holding the hand of a dark-skinned, slightly older boy, with the caption "Isaac and Rosa, Slave Children from New Orleans."

Some of the photographic postcards were blatant political propaganda: a few of them showed the children either wrapped up in the United States flag or posed looking at the flag. An 11-year-old girl named Rebecca Huger gazes at the flag in one photo and the caption reads "O how I love the old flag!" Rebecca was a slave in her father's house and had apparently been a "personal attendant" to one of her slightly older half-sisters or cousins.

One postcard showed the freed slaves studying books, with the caption "Learning is Wealth." Another of the photos noted that "these children were turned out of the St. Lawrence Hotel, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, on account of color." All proceeds from the sale of the photographic postcards went to support the school that educated the freed slaves.

Historians note that this sort of story about "white" slaves resonated with a public that had read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and other accounts about white slavery. When I read the brief account of the life of young Rebecca, I was reminded of the story of Sally Hemings, the apparent slave mistress of President Thomas Jefferson. Sally's story was likely pretty similar to Rebecca's, even though she lived 50 years before. Sally was also largely European-American, though descended from slaves, and was a slave in the home of white relatives. She was a half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife. We don't have a photograph of Sally, but we do of children who were probably a lot like her.

It is sad that the abolitionists were likely right that people would find it easier to sympathize and identify with the fair-skinned ex slaves than they would the other freed slaves. Hopefully the money raised helped everyone to get a good education and to lead better lives. Unfortunately, I'll probably never find out what happened to them. I was disappointed when I learned that not much is known about the later lives of the children in these photographic postcards. Maybe some social historian will write a follow-up book.

The photos of the children, taken in Philadelphia and New York City in 1863, can be found at the Library of Congress Web site. Here are links for some of the most interesting:;;;;;


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