VIEW LARGER

Artist: William A. Pratt
Title: Freemen of Color

ca. 1830
Quarter plate daguerreotype | Hand colored
4 1/4 x 3 1/8 in. (10.8 x 7.9 cm)
Purchase, gift of Christina and Dr. George M. Kemp, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. photography fund, and in memory of Alice R. and Sol B. Frank

This hand-colored daguerreotype was taken by photographer William A. Pratt in antebellum, or pre-Civil War, Virginia. The photograph shows two African-American men outfitted in a manner that does not imply that they were enslaved at the time the photograph was taken. They are finely dressed is suits and silk cravats, and one of the men wears a gold ring and fob, or chain, to a pocket watch. The man on the left has his arm over the other man’s shoulder, implying friendship. This rare photograph of two well-off African-American men in mid-19th century America reveals the small, but possible, opportunity for a prosperous life that free men were able to live.

Context

At the time this photograph was taken, the North was growing wealthy because of advancements in industry, while the South was relying on agriculture, mainly cotton. States divided over whether or not the federal government needed more control. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 declared that all runaway slaves be returned to their masters, which greatly angered Northern abolitionists. In 1857, when Dred Scott sued for his freedom, the Supreme Court ruled that he was not entitled to the rights of a United States citizen, further intensifying the debate over slavery. By the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, tensions peaked and seven Southern states seceded from the Union, setting off the final steps toward America’s Civil War.