As will be seen from this selection, artists, engravers and photographers managed to capture and preserve for posterity a variety of images of African Americans throughout the 19th century. Some of these image makers were white Americans from the north and south. Others were European travelers. Still others, especially after the Civil War, were African Americans. The pictures they left range from the stereotypical to the naturalistic. In addition to recording the physical characteristics of their African-American subjects, they document the social, political and cultural life worlds of African-American people from slavery to various stages of quasi freedom. There are scenes of enslaved Africans on plantations and in rural and urban settings. The tumultuous period of transition from slavery to freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras is well documented. Some pictures capture the uniqueness and subtleties of African-American group celebrations, cultural rituals and individual and group aesthetic choices. They also record the process of social, political and institutional development during this pivotal century in African-American history.
The images that have been preserved for the period prior to the 1860s were heavily influenced by the abolitionist campaign of the 1830s to the 1860s. African Americans are frequently portrayed as abject victims of the Southern slavery regime. But the images that predominate are those of the triumphant ex-slaves and free black abolitionists rather than the enslaved Africans themselves.
Civil War photographers and image makers focused their cameras and/or attention to the "contraband of war" - formerly enslaved African Americans in the South who followed the advance of the Union troops, seeking freedom under the protection of the Union army. Schools and churches erected in the midst of the war as well as the villages and communities that became centers of social uplift in the post-war period are also documented, as is black involvement as new citizens, voters and office holders during the reconstruction era. The violent reactions of whites to blacks' fledgling efforts to practice freedom and interracial democracy in the north and south are also recorded for posterity.
Individual and family portraits of these 19th-century African Americans present evidence of the stunningly beautiful and elegantly attired men, women and children of all classes, ages, sizes and hues who comprised the African-American community both during and after slavery. The grossest of the stereotypical images of blacks have not been included in this database because they do more to misrepresent than represent their subjects. For persons interested in studying these distorted images and the minds of the people who created them, original materials from the period are available at the Schomburg Center of The New York Public Library.
This is the first of a series of pictorial databases that will be mounted on this site as part of the "Digital Schomburg." Others will be added of 19th-century continental Africans and African peoples in Central and South America and the Caribbean. These image databases are meant to complement and supplement the full text databases of writings by people of African descent which also are a part of the "Digital Schomburg," an electronic reference and research resource on African, African American and African Diasporan history and culture from the Schomburg Center.