The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. Yet, as we commemorate its 150th anniversary, what do we really know about those who experienced slavery? In their pioneering book, “Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery” (Temple University Press, $35), renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, a historian of slavery, have amassed 150 photographs — some never before published — from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle and aspiration.
“So many of these photographs I think are just haunting because they give us the evidence of people who lived, and people who survived and people who told their own stories with their images,” said Krauthamer.
Willis, a Philadelphia native, is a leading historian and curator of African-American photography and culture, and is chair and professor of photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She was a MacArthur Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fletcher Fellow. Her co-authored book, “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs,” received the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work — Biography/Autobiography. Her most recent books are “Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present” and “Black Venus 2010: They Called Her ‘Hottentot.’" Krauthamer is an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is the author of “Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South,” as well as many articles and essays on the history of slavery and emancipation.
This book project was formally born when both researchers were transfixed by the 1863 reward notice for a runaway female slave name, “Dolly.” The plantation owner, Louis Manigault, filed the $50 reward with the Augusta, Ga., police.
“One of the pictures that brought us together and thinking about the ideas that would become this book was the picture on page 13 that's the runaway notice for the enslaved woman named, ‘Dolly’,” explained Krauthamer. “That was a photograph that her master had, but when we looked at that photograph and wrote about it one of the things that became clear is that photograph is the proof of Dolly's life — and it's the proof of her freedom. Even though her owner tries to write a life story for her by describing her body and describing his possession of her, but she has told her own story that we can see in that image, because she took her body and took charge of her life and ran away. She created for herself and freedom. Why we know her story is because this photograph existed and because she freed herself. And so I think one of the things that has stuck with me over the years about these images is that they have such a multilayered history and set of stories that they tell and that they allow us to see people who otherwise their lives we don't know about.”
“Envisioning Emancipation” illustrates what freedom looked like for Black Americans in the Civil War era. From photos of the enslaved on plantations and African-American soldiers and camp workers in the Union Army to Juneteenth celebrations, slave reunions and portraits of Black families and workers in the American South, the images in this book challenge perceptions of slavery. They show not only what the subjects emphasized about themselves but also the ways Americans of all colors and genders opposed slavery and marked its end. Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, “Envisioning Emancipation” provides a new perspective on American culture.
“Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery” will be the focus of an author talk and book signing on Feb. 8 at 3:00 PM at Temple University Mitten Hall, Great Court, 1913 N. Broad St. This event is free and open to the public.