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!
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.
English potter and prominent abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood issued this jasperware medallion in 1787. It has an applied relief of a supplicant slave in chains with “Am I not a man and a brother?” inscribed around the slave. The medallion was modeled after the seal for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in 1787 by the English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. In February 1788, Wedgwood sent medallions to Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania; they were an immediate success. Clarkson wrote: “some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion…was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice and, humanity and freedom.” The design was also used in printed form on plates, enamel boxes for patches, as well as on tea caddies and for tokens, and later on printed broadsides as abolitionist propaganda (see “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” atop John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Our Countrymen in Chains!,” 1837).
One of the most famous images of the transatlantic slave trade, this image of the slave ship Brookes shows each deck and cross-sections of decks and “tight packing” of captives. The image graphically illustrated how inhumane conditions were for slaves in the Middle Passage. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, the diagram depicts a vessel of 400 slaves packed in cheek by jowl, some with just 2 feet and 7 inches of headroom. The Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, which was designed to reduce deaths due to overcrowding on slave ships, allowed each man 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches of space (women and children were granted slightly less room). In the years that followed, the Brookes drawing was republished in books, on broadsheets, and as posters all over Britain, France, and the United States, and came to symbolize the inhumanity of the slave trade. It is impossible to know how influential the image was in swaying public opinion against the slave trade and slavery more generally. Yet, as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson argued, the “intelligible and irresistible” way it conveyed information made it an especially evocative form of anti-slavery propaganda.
This broadside publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Our Countrymen in Chains” includes the illustration “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?,” originally adopted as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s. The image of the supplicant male slave in chains was a popular and effective propaganda tool for anti-slavery activists who distributed the design in multiple forms, most especially in medallions made by the famed ceramics maker Josiah Wedgwood (see Anti-Slavery Medallion, by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787). Here, in addition to Whittier’s poem, the appeal to conscience against slavery continues with two further quotes, the first a the scriptural warning from Exodus and the second a staggering statistical claim about slavery in England and America. Copies of this broadside were sold at the New York Anti-Slavery Office and by mail through abolitionist newspapers, making their reach wide-ranging.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison established the radical newspaper The Liberator in 1831. Although its circulation was only about 3,000, and three-quarters of subscribers were African Americans in 1834, the newspaper earned nationwide notoriety for its uncompromising advocacy of “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves” in the United States. Lloyd’s rhetoric was radical and inflammatory, meant to provoke and astonish northerners with the gruesome nature of slavery. The Liberator faced harsh resistance from several state legislatures, local groups, and prominent individuals from the South.
Constructed from 1837 to 1838 as a meeting place for local abolitionist groups, Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was set on fire and destroyed by an anti-abolitionist mob just three days after dedication ceremonies on May 14, 1838.
Photographs of emancipated children by photographer Charles Paxson were sold to raise money for the education of freed slaves in New Orleans. The children featured in these photographs drew attention to the fact that slavery was not simply a matter of color but of birth. The education of freed men and women was regarded as one of the most important elements to creating lasting change in a post-slavery world, as this image relates with the caption “Learning is Wealth.”
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.
Originally drawn for publication in Harper’s Weekly , “Emancipation” pictures Columbia (the female representation of America) presiding over a scene imagining the difference that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would have on slavery and former slaves in the South. The original 1863 illustration omitted Lincoln’s image at the bottom, instead featuring an abstract image of heavenly intervention breaking a slave’s chains. The inclusion of Lincoln’s visage highlights his ascension from sometimes-maligned president into a national martyr and revered Great Emancipator, and also begs the question of who (in the public imagination) freed the slaves.
One of the many important rights that African Americans pursued after emancipation was voting, seen in this image during the 1867 election in New Orleans. The streets are filled with African American men of varying statuses as they utilize their new found freedoms at the ballot box. African American men maintained that their manhood and military service during the Civil War justified their rights as citizens, including and especially the right to vote. Even with the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments that secured African Americans’ status as citizens and black men’s right to vote, the post-Reconstruction era challenged and briefly negated the gains that has been made for black rights after the war.
A slightly altered version of another print by the same title (located in image collection) also issued by Metcalf and Clark, commemorating the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment and its celebration in Baltimore. In the center is a redrawn view of the parade on Monument Street. While it still features a small troop of black Zouaves, it highlights the spectators dressed in fine clothing standing along a row of fashionable houses. The vignettes surrounding the central scene are also redrawn and placed in a different arrangement, with the plantation and battle scenes appearing in the lower corners. Around the central group of busts (poorly drawn) are various tools and implements, and two urns.
One of several large commemorative prints marking the enactment of the 15th Amendment on March 30, 1870. This print, like the second print of the same name and “The 15th Amendment. Celebrated May 19th 1870” (both in the image collection), shows multiple scenes that represent the past, present, and future of the African American community. The central vignette pictures the parade held in Baltimore on May 19th that celebrated the amendment’s passing. At the head of the parade are a small troop of black Zouaves, holding rifles across their shoulders, followed by several men on horseback wearing top hats and sashes, several floats, and more soldiers. Onlookers, including many African American men and women, watch the parade pass. Around this central image are scenes of past injustice (plantation scene in upper left corner) and past accomplishments (African American soldiers fighting for the Union), as well as present and future centers of African American life (a black schoolroom with the words “Education will be our pride,” and a black preacher before his congregation, with the words, “The day of Jubilee has come”). Positioned around the central scene are busts of white and black politicians, abolitionists, and civil rights fighters. In the lower corners stand two parade groups of black men wearing Masonic sashes and aprons. They carry banners decorated with allegorical figures as well as the portraits of Lincoln, Grant, and Swiss patriot William Tell and his son.
With the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, Congress abolished slavery (13th Amendment), guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the United States (14th Amendment), and granted the right to vote to male citizens (15th Amendment). This lithograph pictures the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave male citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In its central scene, this image documents a grand parade held to celebrate the amendment’s passage in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 19, 1870. Surrounding the central vignette are portraits of notable politicians and abolitionists, as well as scenes of African Americans freely participating in the cultural, intellectual, economic, religious, political, and military life of the nation.
Painted by Webber for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, this image celebrates abolitionists’ efforts to end slavery. It depicts Levi Coffin, his wife Catharine, and Hannah Haydock, all friends of the artist, leading a group of fugitive slaves to freedom on a winter morning. While most visualizations of the Underground Railroad highlight the the runaway slaves and/or the pursuers as the main characters, Webber focuses on the abolitionists who participated in bringing southern slaves to freedom in the North.
Drawn for publication in Harper’s Weekly , “The Emancipation of the Negroes” pictures Columbia (the female representation of America) presiding over a scene imagining the difference that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would have on slavery and former slaves in the South. The original 1863 illustration features an abstract image of heavenly intervention breaking a slave’s chains, whereas the 1865 lithograph (see “Emancipation” by Thomas Nast, 1865) includes a portrait of Lincoln within the small circled inset. The inclusion of Lincoln’s visage highlights his ascension from sometimes-maligned president into a national martyr and revered Great Emancipator, and also begs the question of who (in the public imagination) freed the slaves.
On April 19, 1866, the African American citizens of Washington, D.C., celebrated the abolition of slavery. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people proceeded to the White House, where they were addressed by President Andrew Johnson. Two black regiments led the procession, marching past an estimated 10,000 cheering spectators. Proceeding up Pennsylvania Avenue to Franklin Square for religious services and speeches by prominent politicians, the African American citizens made clear that though slavery was abolished, more work was to be done. A sign on top of the speaker’s platform read: “We have received our civil rights. Give us the right of suffrage and the work is done.”
This large, detailed allegory predicts the triumph of the Union over the dark forces of the Confederacy and “King Cotton.” The accompanying key describes the secession of the South in intensely moralistic terms, as the machinations of a cunning “Hydra of human discord” that produces treachery and rebellion. The image can be divided into a lower and upper half. In the lower, the forces of darkness are ruled by King Cotton, pictured here as an alligator-headed monarch with a body of a cotton sack. The terrifying monster sits on a throne next to a burning column with the words “Lecompton” (the controversial proslavery Kansas constitution passed in 1857), “Fugitive Slave [Law],” and “Missouri Compromise.” With pistols and daggers in his belt, King Cotton seemingly maintains control over his land, keeping a paw on a manacled slave who looks upward toward a “sublime apparition” appearing in clouds the clouds above. Here Freedom, wearing an Indian bonnet and holding a liberty cap, appears with a large American flag amid a crowd of deities and historical figures, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Christianity (left) and Justice (right) attends Freedom. Immediately in front of her is “Humanitas,” borne by an eagle and holding an infant and reaching towards the supplicant slave below. The eagle fiercely clutches the hem of King Cotton’s cloak and wields several lightning bolts, which have ignited the terrified monarch’s throne. Other symbols of slavery are terrorized by this vision of the Union’s triumph.
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.
Benjamin Lay (1681-1759) was a British Quaker who grew passionately anti-slavery after a journey to Barbados. He carried forth his witness to his concern chiefly in the American colonies until he was formally disowned by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1738. Lay showed a propensity for theatrical demonstrations illustrating the evils of slavery and Friends’ complicity with it. Chief among Lay’s offenses was the publication of his lengthy book All Slave-Keepers That keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates… in 1737 by Benjamin Franklin, Lay’s close personal friend. The book made many accusations against individual Friends and the Society as a whole for being complicit in the slave system, angering many Quakers throughout the British Atlantic World.
The first African American, first slave, and third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems, Phyllis Wheatley was kidnapped in West Africa and brought to Boston as a slave in 1761. Purchased by John Wheatley for his young wife, Phyllis astounded the young couple with her intelligence. Learning to speak and read English in a very short time, Susannah Wheatley encouraged Phyllis to study theology and the English, Latin and Greek classics. Phyllis published her first poem in 1767, and six years later, she published a book, Poems on Various Subjects . That same year, John Wheatley emancipated her. Wheatley achieved international renown, traveling to London to promote her book and being called upon as well as received by noted social and political figures of the day. This profile image included at the beginning of her book of poems and attributed to enslaved artist and writer Scipio Moorhead, was a very unusual style for picturing any black person in the eighteenth century. Phyllis wears the dress of a respectable white woman, with her hair in a bonnet and a neat dress. Most interestingly, she is pictured at her writing table in the process of writing, a reinforcement of the fact that the set of poems coming after this image were indeed written by a black woman. Moorhead’s use of this particular stance is a reference to a then-popular European portrait style that pictured wealthy, intellectual women in a pensive state at their writing table.
Born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760, Allen bought his freedom and soon began traveling as an itinerant Methodist preacher throughout the eastern coast. While in a town near Philadelphia, Allen was asked to preach to a group of black congregants at St. George’s Methodist Church, a group that soon began to blossom. With the growth of this black congregation, Allen recognized the necessity of creating their own separate black church, leading to the creation (with Absalom Jones) of the Free African Society, a non-denominational religious mutual aid society for the black community. Eventually this society grew into the African Church of Philadelphia. Allen continued his Methodist ministry, and seven years later, in 1794, founded Bethel, which became the “Mother” church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination. Allen appears in this portrait as a stoic and thoughtful man, respectable in all manners of appearance. Dedicated to racial uplift and achievement for all his black brothers and sisters, Allen intentionally crafted his image as a model of a highly respected, pious, and socially minded African American.
Born a slave in 1746, Absalom Jones came to be regarded (along with Richard Allen — see “Portrait of Richard Allen”) as one of the leaders of Philadelphia’s vibrant African American community. Jones bought his own freedom as well as that of his wife’s through years of hard work, and went on to found the Free African Society with Richard Allen, and eventually led the African Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, the first black Episcopal church in the United States. The most widely recognized image of the Reverend Absalom Jones, completed sometime prior to the winter of 1810, displays a dignity rarely allowed African subjects in 19th century art. The portrait, which focuses on Jones’s face and upper body, shows Jones in his ecclesiastical robes, with Bible in hand, emphasizing his role in the African American religious community. While the style is simple, it is reminiscent of formal paintings of European clergy. This refined style was a concerted product of the painter, Raphaelle Peale, the oldest surviving child of the prominent Philadelphia portraitist Charles Willson Peale. The senior Peale was pleased to discover that his son had “painted a Portrait in oil of Absalom Jones a very excellent picture of the Rev’d. Gentleman.”
In this very rare image, we see Douglass near the time of his escape. With the encouragement of Anna Murray, a free black woman living in Baltimore, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and escaped to freedom on a train on September 3, 1838. This portrait was taken soon after, likely in 1840, and took advantage of the new technology of photography (invented in 1838). His intense gaze seems to penetrate the viewer; his direct focus on the camera itself is a distinct visual characteristic very different than his later portraits (which most often picture Douglass looking to the left of the camera). Douglass’s passion for the abolitionist cause, one he took into his own hands when he took his freedom, exudes from his powerful gaze. While his youthful face reveals his young age, Douglass’s careful construction of his refined appearance and intense demeanor speak to his determination to become a national figure in the fight against slavery.
This powerful portrait shows Douglass as he grew in national prominence during the 1840s. It is particularly interesting in that it is pre-photography portrait, and one of the few (possibly only) known painted portraits that Douglass sat for. Even though Douglass later railed against painted images of African Americans as biased and untruthful, this singular portrait reveals his belief in the necessity for African Americans to visually display their respectability and integrity. The portrait is very similar to the engraved likeness that appeared as a frontispiece to Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Boston, 1845), and could have been based on the engraving.
This 1850 copy of a daguerreotype taken three years earlier displays Douglass’s impressive ability to visually communicate his strength, passion, and intensity. After the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, photography became a democratizing force as greater numbers of men and women could afford to have their visage documented. Douglass, along with Sojourner Truth and other African Americans, considered photography to be the best technique to capture the dignity and humanity of oppressed peoples. Photography, unlike painting, captured exactly the image that the sitter created, rather than privileging the image that the artist wished to create. As such, Douglass sat for numerous photography portraits over the course of his life, documenting the development of an abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, civil rights fighter, politician, and national figure.
This 1/4 plate daguerreotype by an unknown artist is unique in its composition, showing an intimate image of Douglass’s profile. Taken in 1850, the profile view of this portrait gives Douglass an additional air of sophistication. It seems to harken back to the black and white silhouettes of the 18th and early 19th centuries, when wealthy and middle class families commissioned their likenesses to be cut or drawn using a black figure on a white background. Even though Douglass’s black hair, black skin, and black overcoat are placed against a black backdrop in this portrait, his earnest expression and stately demeanor shine through.
With a tuft of gray hair, this 1860 portrait reveals Douglass as a stately leader. Impeccably dressed with styled and restrained facial hair, Douglass displays his position as one of the key figures in the African American community. Douglass gazes to the left of the camera, smiling just slightly while maintaining that well-known intensity.
Perhaps the most famous of Douglass’s many portraits, this photograph by the well-respected Frank W. Legg shows an aged yet dignified Douglass.
Taken only years before his death in 1895, this portrait of an aged Douglass still maintains his famed intensity. Looking — as became the standard for his portraits — to the left side of the camera, Douglass appears pensive, perhaps about past successes or present injustices experienced in the African American community. When this photograph was taken, Douglass was minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. Douglass’s dignified appearance in this portrait speaks to his position as an advocate and diplomat for blacks around the diaspora.
An unusual informal portrait of Passmore Williamson, secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, seated in a prison cell. Williamson was convicted on July 22, 1855, for evasive testimony to a writ of habeas corpus issued by Federal District Court judge John Kane. Williamson’s testimony related to his participation in the emancipation of three slaves owned by U.S. minister to Nicaragua John Hill Wheeler in Philadelphia. Williamson’s imprisonment gave rise to heated public controversy over the issue of states’ rights and the status of slaves traveling through free territory. Judge Kane’s actions were heavily criticized in the press, and Williamson was released from prison on November 3, 1855, after giving slightly modified testimony.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a prominent nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s rights advocate in the United States and Canada. Born into a prominent free black family in Wilmington, Delaware, Cary grew up in a household dedicated to abolition. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Cary relocated to Canada, where she started the first black female-run newspaper, the Provincial Freeman . After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, Cary attended Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., becoming the first African American woman to receive a J.D. In this portrait, Cary exudes restrained refinement, with subdued colors, pressed garments, and meticulously styled hair. Her exceptionally strong gaze, looking just to the left of the camera, projects her resolve and resilience in the fight against slavery and injustice.
In this iconic portrait, Sojourner Truth gazes directly at the camera while taking a brief respite from her womanly work. After escaping to freedom in 1826, Truth dedicated herself to the abolitionist cause. Even though she never learned to read or write, Truth sought to use her image as a means of raising money and support for the anti-slavery movement. The imprint on the verso features the sitter’s famous statement in bright red ink as well as a Michigan 1864 copyright in her name. By owning control of her image, the “shadow” that she refers to in the caption, Truth could “sold” herself for the important cause of ending slavery. In so doing she became one of the era’s most progressive advocates for slaves and freedmen after Emancipation, for women’s suffrage, and for the medium of photography. As noted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Truth wittily maintained that while she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit…now she sold herself for her own.”
In the decade before the Civil War, Martin R. Delany was active in the movement to relocate free blacks to Liberia, where they might have greater freedoms. Yet with the outbreak of the Civil War, Delany — and many other African Americans — recognized the war as a potential stepping stone to equality. The African American community saw great possibilities for greater freedoms through active military service. In particular, black men who served in the Union army claimed that their manhood — as proven through participation in the war effort — justified their rights to citizenship. This portrait emphasizes these qualities of manhood, military service, and leadership. Delany appears in his major regalia (Delany was the only black officer to receive the rank of major during the war) as a stern, dignified, and prepared leader, alluding to the importance that all African American soldiers played in the Union effort.
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.
Intending to evoke strong emotions of anger, pity, and activism, this print shows a sailor on a slave ship suspending an African girl by her ankle from a rope over a pulley. With an evil sneering smile, Captain John Kimber stands on the left with a whip in his hand. Anti-slavery activists used not only words but also images to exhibit the many horrors happening daily in the African slave trade so as to prompt those in power to take a stand against it.
One of several racist parodies of black American illiteracy, dialect, and manners issued in Boston at various times between 1819 and 1832, this broadside is in the form of burlesque reports and letters relating to the annual July 14 celebrations, among Boston’s black residents, of the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Though the American slave trade was actually abolished on January 1, 1808, it was celebrated in July by many black Americans for decades. In his use of black stereotypes, the producer anticipates Edward W. Clay’s Life in Philadelphia series (see “Grand celebration ob de bobalition ob African slabery.”)
A part of the well-known Life in Philadelphia series drawn by Edward W. Clay, this racist caricature lampoons free African Americans’ celebratory response to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833. “Grand Celebration,” like Clay’s other drawings in the series, mocks the pretensions of free blacks who (according to many whites) were poorly “ape-ing” the customs, manners, and dress of middle- and upper-class whites. This image is one of many produced in the antebellum North that amplified animosity towards the ascension of free blacks out of slavery and into greater strata of wealth and status (see also “Reply to Bobalition of Slavery”). The satirical use of a “black” dialect, in contradistinction to the fanciful costumes of the men, underscores the widely held (though not completely uncontested) belief by antebellum northern and southern whites that African Americans could never truly rise out of slavery.
This political cartoon satirizes the enforcement of the “gag-rule” in the House of Representatives, which prohibited discussion of the question of slavery during much of the antebellum era. In the 1830s, growing antislavery sentiments of northern representatives clashed with resentful southern congressmen who saw the discussion of slavery as meddlesome and insulting to their constituencies. This print may relate to John Quincy Adams’s opposition to passage of the resolution in 1838, or (more likely) to his continued frustration in attempting to force the slavery issue to debate through the presentation of northern constituents’ petitions in 1839. In December 1839 a new “gag rule” was passed by the House forbidding debate, reading, printing of, or even reference to any petition on the subject of abolition.
President Martin Van Buren sought a middle course between the issues of the annexation of Texas on one hand and abolitionism on the other, yet in the process lost the support of southern Democrats, including elderly statesman Andrew Jackson. The artist shows Van Buren’s cautious walking of the middle line, portraying Van Buren as a dog with a fox’s bushy tail that is leading his master (Jackson) astray. Though Jackson worries he is being led astray, Van Buren insists, “We must take a middle course, boos. Salt river is on one side, and abolitionism is on the other.” To their left is a man wearing striped pants, holding two dogs with the heads of James Polk and George Dallas and saying to Jackson, “Here, Almighty sir! are a couple of pups well broken, who will come when you whistle for them & go where you wish. “That dog” has too much fox in him.” Just a few months after this cartoon was published, Polk and Dallas were chosen Democratic nominees over Van Buren.
With sectionalist ideologies increasingly endangering the Union in 1850, the artist attacks various interests of politicians across the nation, particularly abolitionist and Free Soil supporters. Using certain national figures to represent larger idea systems, the artist singles out for indictment radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Pennsylvania Free Soil advocate David Wilmot, New York journalist Horace Greeley, and Southern states’ rights spokesman Senator John C. Calhoun. The four wear fool’s caps and gather, like the witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” round a large cauldron. The men add sacks marked “Free Soil,” “Abolition,” and “Fourierism” to an already boiling and overflowing pot.
This image, drawn from the perspective of a nativist, exhibits aspects of the various presidential candidates’ platforms for the 1856 campaign. Of particular interest is a carriage led by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Carrying candidate John C. Fremont’s wife Jessie and a large sack, Greeley’s carriage is stuck in an “Abolition Cess Pool.” At the rear of the carriage, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher tries to force the back wheel using a rifle as a lever. Beecher’s speech bubble refers to Republican attempts to exploit the Kansas violence as an election issue, as well as to Beecher’s arming of antislavery settlers in Kansas.
Seeking to discredit Republicans during the 1864 presidential campaign, Democrats coined and applied the term “miscegentation” to the Republican platform. Democrats argued that the equality promoted by Republicans was in actuality an attempt to further intermingling between races. This print, the second in a series of anti-Lincoln satires by Bromley & Co. in New York City, expresses the anxiety felt by many over the potential consequences of the equality embraced by Republicans. The repercussions of equality, as envisioned by the artist, include the dissolution of the color line with the seduction of a white woman by a black dandy (to the far right) and the breakdown of the correlation between color and class with the wealthy black family attended by their white servants (middle, second row).
Though negative racial stereotypes of African Americans were not new (see “Grand celebration ob de bobalition ob African slabery” in the Images section), post-Reconstruction white America sought out greater numbers of these degrading images as fears of racial uplift and conflict grew. The firm of Currier & Ives, a well-respected and known print company, produced a series of demeaning images of African Americans known as the Darktown Comics between the mid-1870s to the early 1890s. Previous to the Emancipation Proclamation, Currier & Ives generally depicted blacks as individuals content with their lives and position in society, often pictured in the background of idyllic plantation images. After the Proclamation was issued, there was a short period when the firm published positive images of blacks and portraits of important abolitionist. With time, as freedmen began to ascend the social ladder in cities around the US, it became more apparent that not all northerners were unanimous in their support of emancipation and the status of the freedman. The political images published by Currier & Ives during this time were vicious attacks against the character and intelligence of blacks, propagating and prolonging the humiliating stereotypes of Jim Crow.
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.
One of the most intense debates surrounding human trafficking in the world today is whether to label victims as slaves. Yet an underlying issue to this debate is how we visualize slavery and the victims of this institution. In the United States, much the media surrounding contemporary trafficking focuses on white women, such as the one pictured here, who are pictured in a state of bondage but without the contextual information relating to their labor or lifestyle. This image is certainly evocative: the rope around her neck clearly refers to the powerful coercion involved in trafficking, while the bar code across her forehead denotes the dehumanization that occurs in all cases of slavery. But what does it actually tell us about modern-day slavery? While like other abolitionist images it is meant to evoke strong emotions (particularly anger and sadness) that would lead to activism, many contemporary trafficking images are disconnected from the labor and lifestyle that makes one a slave. And though there are many images of trafficked people from around the world that appear in the US media, a large portion of the slaves pictured in print or film continue to look one way.
Modern Slavery and Abolition
While a large percentage of trafficking victims are adults, especially women forced into prostitution (see image “Contemporary Slavery-Sex Trafficking”), children make up a significant number of the victims forced into prostitution and bonded labor. Although the abolition of slavery throughout much of the world greatly reduced child slavery, the institution continues, particularly in Third World countries. According to the Anti-Slavery Society, “Although there is no longer any state which legally recognizes, or which will enforce, a claim by a person to a right of property over another, the abolition of slavery does not mean that it ceased to exist. There are millions of people throughout the world — mainly children — in conditions virtual to slavery.” Debates rage over what can be considered “slavery” in today’s society. Yet it seems certain that if the abolitionists of the past were alive today and travelled to different parts of the world – not just in Africa, but also in large parts of Asia, the Middle East, South America and even parts of Europe and the United States – they would describe the horrendous conditions and circumstances the trafficked children lived and work in as slavery. Some of the most prominent images of modern-day slavery are of children in bondage, meant to evoke emotional responses and activism from viewers. Looking straight into the camera, as if gazing directly at the viewer, this sorrowful child prompts pathos, disgust, and hope for a better future for the world’s children. As with many images of contemporary trafficking, though, there are no (or in some cases few) words attached to the image, creating a picture that has little context without a narrative.
From the cocoa fields in western African to the tomato plantations of Florida, workers are coerced to work for little to no wages in extremely poor conditions. Some are trafficked through debt peonage, forced from their homes to labor on farms as a way of supposedly negating their debt. Others are captured and taken across borders to work in what many consider slavery-like conditions. This photograph, showing a young Hispanic man working fervently in a tomato field, complicates our typical understanding of slavery. Though movies like Taken and images like “Who is a Slave?” in this collection show young white women as the victims of contemporary trafficking, there are huge numbers of Hispanic workers being forced to work for little or nothing in America’s farmlands. This occurs on a global scale as well, as men, women, and children are captured or coerced into picking cotton, fruit, cocoa, and other products.