“Nothing compares to the burning agonies of hell!”- Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup.
Black History Month is observed in the United Kingdom in October and in the United States of America throughout February. The civil rights struggle is alive and well around the world, and recent events have fueled the conversation about our shared history and the unsettling truth that our nations have thrived for centuries on the suffering of others.
Growing up in the United Kingdom, I was never taught about the American Civil War, or much of nineteenth-century history outside of the Industrial Revolution. So, while researching the history of these photos, I learned a lot about how much the trade in human beings contributed to the modern world.
Although slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807, Britain continued to rely on slave labor in the plantations of the United States for major consumer goods such as coffee, cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco.
The technology did not exist to capture the British slave trade on film, but the final years of slavery in the United States were documented. As a result, the photos in this article were all taken in America, from the 1850s to the 1930s, and they depict the horrors of life for those living under slavery as well as the accounts of those who survived into old age as free as they were allowed to live in a highly segregated society.
I colored these photos in order to share some of the stories of those depicted. I know how often a black-and-white photo is ignored in a news feed and how much more engaging a color version can be for many readers. I believe that coloring a photograph opens a window into another era, and with the world, as it is, it is critical to revisit these people’s stories in order to better understand the world today.
The American Civil War was also the first conflict in which photography played a significant role, with new technology able to provide us with incredible records of not only military operations but also photographs of escaped slaves fleeing the south for safety in the northern states. The Union used these photographs as the first wartime photographic propaganda, paving the way for the abolition of slavery.
All colorized images by Tom Marshall (PhotograFix), 2020.
The Scourged Back
This photograph, titled “The Scourged Back,” is one of the most well-known from this time period, and it was widely circulated by anti-slavery activists. It’s one of the earliest examples of propaganda photography. Gordon, also known as’ Whipped Peter, ‘an escaped slave,’ shows his scarred back at a medical examination in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on April 2, 1863.
Gordon eluded capture in Mississippi by rubbing himself with onions to ward off the bloodhounds. He sought refuge with the Union Army in Baton Rouge, and Harper’s Weekly published three engraved portraits of him in 1863, depicting the man ‘as he underwent the surgical examination prior to being mustered into the service — his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day
“This postcard photograph should be multiplied by 100,000 and scattered across the states,” wrote The New York Independent at the time. It tells the story in a way that not even Mrs. Stowe could because it tells the story to the eye. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was referred to as Mrs. Stowe.
McPherson & Oliver photographed two unidentified escaped slaves in ragged clothing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This photograph was taken sometime between 1861 and 1865, though the exact date is unknown, and the caption on the reverse reads ‘Contrabands just arrived.’ Contraband was a term used to describe a new legal status for certain escaped slaves or those who joined Union forces.
The Union Army determined in August 1861 that the United States would no longer return escaped slaves who crossed Union lines, classifying them as ‘contraband of war,’ or captured enemy property. They employed many as laborers to aid Union efforts and soon began to pay them. Former slaves established camps near Union forces, and the Army assisted in the support and education of both adults and children among the refugees.
When recruitment for the United States Colored Troops began in 1863, thousands of men from these camps enlisted. At the end of the war, the South had more than 100 contraband camps, including the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island, where 3500 former slaves worked to establish a self-sufficient community.
Willis Winn, aged 116
Russell Lee took this photograph of Willis Winn in April 1939 in Marshall, Texas, as part of the Federal Writers Project. When the photo was taken, he claimed to be 116 years old and was holding the horn that was used to call slaves to work every day. He was born in Louisiana as a slave of Bob Winn, who Willis claims taught him his birthday was March 10, 1822, since he was a child.
When Lee interviewed Willis he was living alone in a one-room log house in the back of Howard Vestal’s home on Powder Mill Road, north of Marshall, when Lee interviewed him. He was supported by an old-age pension of $11.00 per month.” Massa Bob’s house faced the quarters, so he could hear us holler when he blew the big horn for us to get up,” he remembered. We slept on shuck and grass mattresses that were all full of chinches in all of the log houses. Because I can’t sleep on cotton or feather beds, I still sleep on a grass mattress. “
Willis’ interview in 1939 demonstrated how little had changed for many people in the United States decades after slavery was abolished.
“There are still a lot of niggers in Louisiana who are slaves. I went back to where I was raised a while ago to see my old missy before she died, and there were niggers within twelve or fourteen miles of that location who didn’t realize they were free. There are plenty of niggers around here who look like slaves and have worked for white people for twenty-five years and haven’t gotten a five-cent piece, just old clothes, and food. That’s how it was when we were enslaved. “
Omar ibn Said ‘Uncle Marian’
Omar ibn Said was born in 1770 in the West African country of Senegal. He was a well-educated man who received a formal Islamic education and spent 25 years of his life learning subjects ranging from arithmetic to theology from prominent Muslim scholars in Africa. Said was enslaved in 1807 and transported to South Carolina, where he remained a slave until his death in 1864 at the age of 94. Uncle Moreau, Uncle Marian, and Prince Omeroh were some of his other names.
Said was bought by a young upcountry planter who treated him harshly when he first arrived in South Carolina. He was described by Said as a “small, weak, and wicked man who feared not God at all,” and he fled to North Carolina, where he was apprehended and imprisoned as a runaway slave.
Omar ibn Said drew attention while in jail by writing in Arabic on the walls, and Jim Owen, a Bladen County, North Carolina resident, bought him from the SC planter.Said described Owen as a good man in his autobiography. “I continue to be in the hands of Jim Owen, who never beats or scolds me. I don’t go hungry or naked, and I don’t have any hard work to do. I am unable to perform strenuous labor because I am a small and feeble man. I have known no want in Jim Owen’s hands for the last twenty years. This photograph of Said was taken around 1850 and is titled ‘Uncle Marian, a slave of great notoriety, of North Carolina.
Potato Picking on Hopkinson’s Plantation
Sweet potato planting at James Hopkinson’s Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Henry P. Moore, a New Hampshire native who traveled to South Carolina to document the Civil War, took the photograph on April 8, 1862. Early in the war, Union gunboats bombarded the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina early in the war, and Confederate planters fled quickly, ordering their field hands and house servants to accompany them. Most chose to ignore their former masters and stay.
The Union government eventually appointed northern antislavery reformers to manage the planters’ abandoned lands and supervise ex-slave labor. These reformers wanted to show that free labor was superior to slave labor in cotton cultivation. Most freed people, however, preferred to grow corn, potatoes, and other subsistence crops rather than cotton or produce for the market.
Auction & Negro Sales, Whitehall Street, Atlanta, Georgia, 1864
This photograph depicts the Auction & Negro Sales on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864. During the Union occupation of Georgia, it was photographed by George N. Barnard, the Chief Engineer’s Office’s official photographer. When the auction house was in use, enslaved Africans would have been poked, prodded, and forced to open their mouths for the buyers. The auctioneer would set a starting bid price. It would be higher for young slaves and lower for older, very young, or sickly slaves. Buyers would compete for the highest bid and sell to the highest bidder.
Unnamed slave of Richard Townsend
Richard Townsend’s unnamed slave is depicted. W.H. Ingram’s Photograph and Ferrotype Gallery, No. 11 West Gay Street, West Chester, Pennsylvania
Former slave Georgia Flournoy
On April 27, 1937, former slave Georgia Flournoy is photographed outside her home in Eufaula, Alabama. Georgia stated that she was over 90 years old when she was interviewed by the Federal Writers Project. She was born on a plantation in Old Glenville, 17 miles north of Eufaula, and claims she never met her mother, who died during childbirth. Georgia worked as a nursemaid in the ‘Big House’ and was not allowed to interact with the other enslaved people on the plantation.
Demonstration of a Bell Rack
Russell Lee also photographed Richbourg Gailliard, assistant to the director of the Federal Museum in Mobile, Alabama, as he demonstrated a ‘Bell Rack.’ An Alabama slave owner used this contraption to protect a runaway slave. Originally, the rack was topped by a bell that rang whenever a runaway attempted to leave the road and go through foliage or trees. It was worn around the neck, as shown in the photo. A belt was threaded through the bottom loop to secure the iron rod to the wearer’s waist.
‘Old Aunt’ Julia Ann Jackson
Julia Ann Jackson, a former slave who lived in a corn crib, is 102 years old. This photograph was taken in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1938. She made a cooking stove out of a large battered tin can.