Harriet Tubman with Rescued Slaves, c. 1885
After gaining her freedom by running to Philadelphia in 1849, Harriet Tubman returned to the South nearly nineteen times to help over three hundred slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. A large number of slaves, unwilling to wait for manumission or formal abolition, took emancipation into their own hands by escaping to freedom.


Images were essential tools in the fight against slavery, and are important sources for historians as we seek to recover and understand the past. For a useful step-by-step guide to analyzing images, see our Image Analysis Worksheet.

Click on each image preview to see the full image and read the caption to learn more!


Abolitionist Activity

The visual propaganda tools utilized by abolitionists were many and varied. From broadsides to paintings to medallions, abolitionists spread the message of the horrors, injustice, and immorality of slavery. The visualization of slavery in these multiple forms was meant to evoke an emotional response that would lead to activism and eventually to abolition. The imagery of abolitionism thus sought to alter hearts and minds so as to prompt legal and social change.


In this collection of portraits, we see many of the men and women who participated in the movement to end slavery. When viewed as a whole, these portraits reveal that a diverse group of individuals with often divergent perspectives together challenged the status quo of slavery’s existence. Often considered disreputable rabblerousers, abolitionists visually proved that respectability and dignity could be combined with great passion and intensity for the abolitionist cause by commissioning these portraits. For more images, see the Massachusetts Historical Society’s large collection of American Abolitionist Portraits.

Political Cartoons

This form of visual satire grew in maturity over the antebellum era, blossoming into one of the most accessible genres for both abolitionists and pro-slavery ideologues to expatiate their opinions. Political cartoons were a unique form of visual propaganda, for they included not only images but also extensive text. This was possible due to the rising literacy rate among whites, thus allowing cartoons’ textual content became a viable and integral element of the overall criticism. This satirical form reached larger audiences over the antebellum period, as improved printing technologies (such as the steam press) sparked a tremendous growth in the number and distribution of American newspapers.

Contemporary Slavery

Though slavery is officially legal in the majority of country’s throughout the world, the institution continues to this day. Though different from slavery of the past, especially the dominant image of 19th-century slavery as black and agricultural, modern-day slavery maintains many connections with historical bondage. A debate now rages as to whether human trafficking — which includes the coercion or forced movement of peoples into various forms of bonded labor (prostitution, domestic work, and farm work, for example) — can be considered slavery. Yet the data emerging on modern-day “slavery” is astonishing, with a purported 21-30 million individuals who are forced to work for little or no pay while under intense physical and emotional constraints. As such, a contemporary abolitionist movement has begun across the globe, and just like the abolitionists of the past, they seek to utilize the imagery of slavery and anti-slavery to galvanize the public towards action. For more information on the connections between past and present trafficking, check out Historians Against Slavery.