Photo May Depict Slave Children in American South

Matthew Brady studio photograph portraying two children who may have been slaves.

A 19th-century photograph recently discovered in a Charlotte, NC moving sale portrays two children that may have been slaves. According to the Associated Press, it was acquired by Keya Morgan, a NY dealer and collector of Civil War-era artifacts. He paid $30,000 for an album containing the photo and $20,000 for a document dated 1854 that describes sale in the State of North Carolina of a slave named John for $1,150. It is not clear if the subject is one of the two boys depicted in the photograph.

Document dated 1854 recording sale in North Carolina of a slave named John.

The date of the image is unknown, but it was made by the studio of renowned Civil War-era photographer Matthew Brady (1822-96), and bears his name on the mount. The two boys, who appear to be around 8 or 9 years old, are barefoot and clad in rags and rough caps, seated on a plank set unevenly atop a barrel, as if the photographer hurriedly arranged the set-up and plopped them down, instructing them to put their hands together in their laps. There are a number of photographs that allegedly depict slaves or former slaves, some horrific records of mistreatement, but few that depict children with such clarity.

Whether or not the image was taken before the Emancipation Proclamation, it vividly attests to the destitution of African- American children in the mid 19th century United States.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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