The story of Isaac and Rose, Slave children from New Orleans, 1863
The boy and the girl looked at the camera. They were old enough to understand their task: to stand still, hands clasped, and direct their gaze at the device in front of them. Isaac was eight and Rose was six…
How did two former child slaves from Louisiana end up in a Broadway photographer's studio in 1863? More on that later. In the meantime, it's enough to know that the two children you see in the photo were the property of slave owners in New Orleans shortly before their image was printed on cartes-de-visite (a new mid-nineteenth-century photo format that allows for more than one copy) and put up for sale.
According to an article published in Harper's Weekly on January 30, 1864, the brief biographies of Isaac and Rose read as follows:
The proceeds from the sale of this portrait were intended to fund newly established schools for former slaves in South Louisiana, a region already occupied by the Union Army. In fact, the civil war was still going on, and the death toll and discontent were growing. The portrait of Isaac and Rose, both charming and challenging, spoke volumes about the uncertainty in the air that year. They would make an unusual pair – a black boy and a white girl.
Although there were many racial taboos in nineteenth-century America, a white girl on the arm of a black boy was undoubtedly one of the most scandalous. The fact that Rose was a "colored" girl who looked white only added to the intrigue. Despite their young age, the children posed like a real gentleman and lady at a social event. But the main purpose of the photo is to represent what kind of adults they will become. This portrait was, above all, a picture of the future. Or rather, about the many futures that seemed possible back in 1863.
Both children were born into slavery in the South, were freed by the Union Army in 1863, and together with several other children and adults went on a journey to the North. Three of the children, including Rose, turned out to be white, evidence of a brutal slave system that allowed the sexual exploitation of female slaves by white men. The "white" children of former slaves were specially photographed, and the proceeds from the sale of the pictures went to the education of former slaves in the southern states.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people in Confederate-controlled territory. Although he did not immediately free every enslaved person, he made it clear that the abolition of slavery would be the result of a Civil War. Since the signing of the proclamation, the war in the North has become increasingly unpopular. Moreover, the urban working class feared the competition that might come from the millions of freed blacks from the South who were willing to work for lower wages.
Many in the North were wary of the prospect of immediate slave emancipation. At best, the skeptics said, the former slaves would refuse to work or move en masse to the North, fleeing the plantations, leaving the cotton fields of the South fallow. And in this atmosphere, the portrait of Isaac and Rose best spoke of peaceful liberation and a peaceful future after slavery. In a sense, it was a guarantee for northerners: the image of neatly dressed "freed slaves" attending school and posing like their white, middle-class northern counterparts represented education as a means of turning young former slaves into models of discipline and decency.
Educating children like Isaac and Rose would eradicate the effects of slavery and make them hard-working young people, consumers of the free market. Judging by the appearance of Isaac and Rose, the liberation was supposed to be peaceful and lead the country to prosperity.
A black boy and a white girl, both of whom were "colored", raised many questions about who is "real white" and who is not, and how anyone can take the liberty of distinguishing them from each other. What are the consequences of freeing racially ambiguous people like Rose? Will emancipation promote further "mixing" between the races?
Carol Goodman, in her book Visualizing the Color Line, argued that such photographs hint at sexual abuse of the mothers of children. The specter of" white " girls being sold as concubines in the slave markets of the South may have caused northern families to fear for the safety of their own daughters. Similarly, northerners were concerned about the idea that white slaveholders would sell their children from female slaves in slave markets. So, in appearance – just a child's portrait, but in reality – a very interesting and rich page in the history of the United States.
Keywords: North America | History | Children | Slavery | New Orleans | Photo archives