Black History Month: Early Photography and African Americans

What we call “history” is born from a collage of glimpses and images, insights and documents. And while this Gallery does not presume to tell the comprehensive story of early photography and African Americans, it does offer tantalizing glimpses into the past. During the half-century covered by these photographs, African Americans fought slavery, withstood brutal racial hatred, and struggled to escape from poverty. Sometimes the camera was their ally… sometimes it was an instrument of prejudice… but often it was an observer, recording the images that we recognize today as the raw material of history.

convictsl Black History Month: Early Photography and African Americans

Thomas H. Lindsey (active Asheville, North Carolina):

“Stripes but no Stars”

Platinum print, circa 1892, 5 x 8 inches

Judging from the wood engraving of Lindsey’s studio on the back of the mount, this photograph was printed after Lindsey’s 1890-1892 partnership with E. E. Brown ended; Brown’s name has been removed from the signs in the picture. The title comes from Lindsey’s catalogue of photographs for sale, where images are listed by negative number. A different view is known with the same title and number, perhaps because the negative used for this image was cracked in the lower right hand corner and needed to be replaced. The studio sold photographs in this size for 25 cents each or $2.50 per dozen.

Views of North Carolina scenery made up the majority of Lindsey’s subjects. “Stripes but no Stars” appeared in a special section of the photographer’s catalogue — Class Z:

In this class is represented all kinds of Character and Comic Subjects, such as rude Mountain Teams, Moutain Vehicles, Cabins where the lower classes exist — views photographed from real life during our rambles through the mountains. To many, this is the most interesting class in our entire list.

Labor unions campaigned against forced work by convicts in the 1890s, and won some important victories. But there was a powerful economic incentive to keep prisoners at work –and even to take in more prisoners for the purposes of convict labor:

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime. Legally allowing any such individual to be subjected to slavery and involuntary servitude opened the door for mass criminalization: a social mechanism designed to bar the liberty and equality that was the promise of emancipation from slavery. When African Americans were no longer legally held as slaves or property, there was a tremendous increase in the number of African-American convicts…When slavery was legally abolished, the Slave Codes were rewritten as the Black Codes, a series of laws criminalizing legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew” for which African Americans were imprisoned. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the power, race, and economic relationships of slavery.

–Julie Browne, “The Labor of Doing Time,” first published in Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis (Prison Activist Resource Center). For full text in a new browser window, click here.

February is Black history month and the only month that the discussion of African Americans seems to be the focus of everything in the media and on television shows. Learn and share information about African American photographers contributions and the images the world gained from some unidentified photographer. We all would prefer to forget our past but I for one don’t believe in that thinking….every race suffered some inequities at the hand of racial prejudice. Photography tells a story about our past and present lives. We should embrace those memories, “lest we forget!”

Dr. Carter G. Woodson chose the month of February to recognize the accomplishments of African-Americans, black history can be celebrated all year long.

1st Famous Quote to Celebrate Black History Month: We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. —Carter G. Woodson

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