In November, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced the acquisition of a rare daguerreotype. The Hall Family Foundation purchased the work for the museum, and it is believed to be the earliest known photograph depicting African American slaves with cotton. According to a release from the museum, “the photograph was likely taken some time during the 1850s and is believed to depict the rural Greene County, Georgia, plantation of Samuel T. Gentry.”
For viewers, the importance of seeing this work in the Nelson-Atkins is its demand that we think of one of the uglier and unsung aspects of chattel slavery. In chattel slavery, to prevent uprisings and keep slaves in subjugation, slave owners engaged in a concerted practice of dehumanization of slaves. This involved forbidding slaves, under threat of death, from speaking in their mother tongue, passing on oral traditions, and any activities that would keep alive memories of life before captivity. So, there are very few images of those in slavery that exist to inform us about what life was like for them.
An image like this is important in its rarity, technological significance and the fact that it is one of the very few representations of those held in American chattel slavery. American museums are rich with paintings of white Americans, Europeans and Asians from the time period of slavery. When we look at those images and then at photographs of modern life in America, we can see how prior privilege and socioeconomic standing has influenced contemporary American life, and how the legacy of slavery and racism lives on.
This mid-19th-century image does not present a spacious, romantically portrayed plantation as seen in the movies. In fact, it is quite modest. This reminds us that the vast economically vertical influence of slavery has created vast economically vertical implications for modern America.
The fact that there are so few images of enslaved African Americans lets us know their humanity was not considered worthy of recording. It appears that, in this case, the slaves were photographed, not to display their humanity, but to display them as possessions and show off the wealth of their owner. To understand today’s race issues, it is important to understand the mentality these issues evolved from. This picture is vital to that.
Keith F. Davis, the museum’s senior curator of photography, called this image “an unforgettable rendition of an era, and a way of life, that must never be forgotten or forgiven.”
It is a bittersweet accomplishment for this photograph to enter the Nelson-Atkins collection. Its presence is not just a reminder and record of where we have come from, but a light illumining how much further we have to go.