Kidada and acclaimed historian of photography Deborah Willis discuss the variety of stories we can take from photographs of Black Civil War soldiers and other African Americans during the era of Reconstruction, and look at how imagery can convey different information than we often have access to through the written word alone. 

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Kidada Williams: Hi everyone. It’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom, the show where we dig into the archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction. And where we talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best. On this episode, what photographs of Black Civil War soldiers tell us about their lives, families and visions of freedom.

Deborah Willis: Hi, I’m Deb Willis. I am Chair of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. I also write about photography and I am a photographer.

KW: Deborah Willis has spent years with images of African Americans and by African Americans in the archives. This year, she published a book on the Black Civil War soldier, a stunning collection of photographs, and the stories of the people portrayed in them.

DW: The stories that I wanted to tell were the missing stories, and I visited exhibitions around the country. I knew, you know, based on my early interest in the experiences of Black Civil War soldiers that they existed. I wanted this book to tell a story from the voices of the individuals who participated in the war, who lived the war, but also reflected their own sense of loss, joy, their excitement, their sense of what’s next in their lives, where we can imagine the future.

They knew that they had a future, because they believed in their freedom. They believed in their own sense of humanity and families, in terms of generations forward, and to have a book that included love letters…for some reason, the sustaining conversation about Black love always drops right after the book is out or right after, you know, the press release.

So I wanted to bring that back into the discussion of Black love in the 19th century, specifically through war. I was also not only interested in the Black men, but I was interested in the women—their wives, their children, as well as the teachers who were involved in working alongside and experiencing the loss of the Black Civil War soldier.

The fact is that I always wanted to visualize, I wanted to connect not only the formal portraits, but I just wanted to visualize the experience of “how do we imagine their lives?”

KW: When a lot of people think about the U.S. Civil War, or even U.S. Civil War service, they think about white men and white military service. How did you, as a Black woman and photographer, become interested in the Civil War?

DW: It’s not one entry way in terms of memory. I, as a child, was interested as my father loved history and we visited Gettysburg and other places that related to monuments, related to the Civil War. So my childhood memory to my adult memory as a student expanded, and I was curious to find the missing images of Black people.

And as a result of that, I was happy to have the opportunity to meet collectors and families who had photographs of their…of Black Civil War soldiers, because they were rarely discussed or talked about in our history books when I was in school…elementary school or even in college. And so that’s where the history becomes central for me.

KW: How do you, as you write in the book, piece together the clues and make the world of Civil War soldiers come alive, starting with a photograph?

DW: Hm. Piecing together. It’s a…it’s a puzzle piecing together this story. You know, my grandmother was a quilter, you know, I had aunts that were quilters. So just, how did they create a story that was interwoven with, you know, different parts of fabrics that didn’t work? Rough fabrics, difficult stitching moments and things like that. So I wanted to try to create what they were doing. I wanted to create a quilt and a story that just kind of was humbling, that was visual, and also nurturing.

So I started out with the photograph and finding texts that related to the image was central for me. And that’s what I recognize that they’ve been there. They’re sitting there, they’ve been calling for us to, you know, help us speak our language. Help us speak through these photographs, I think.

KW: So you talked about the importance of texts for helping you to interpret the documents or interpret the photographs. And you note that on the backs of numerous photographs there are these, as you put it, “astonishing remarks” that revealed that soldiers are being assessed by others. And so I’m looking at page 178 and 179 in the book, and so I wanted to ask, could you give us an example of these remarks? Who writes them?

DW: It’s a photo album of a Lieutenant and he is photographed with another leader of the camp, but he also had all of the Black soldiers in his troop, in his company, photographed. And he wrote on the back of the images, and to find that was—talking about astonishing—but to find that it was so shocking to see the assessment that the lieutenants had on the individual men. Some men were enslaved, some men were free when they entered the camp.

One corporal, Allen, he writes “Excellent one and commands obedience.” “Henry Lively: Best man in the company. He died of malaria. His wife collected his pension.” “Samuel Martin: Uses no tobacco or stimulant. Soldiering, very appreciated by his officers.” And my favorite one is James Roberts, and it says “A free man, hard to manage, stubborn and reckless. He’s now the company drummer.”

And when we see Allen, we see Lively, we see Martin, they are posed in their portraits. They have the stance of a soldier about to go to war, you know, a commitment to the experience. Their jackets are buttoned. They are erect. Everything about them is, you know, just a manly man, you know, kind of moment.

Then with James Roberts, it’s the manly man that he knows, that he experienced. He’s seated, his legs are not together, his jacket is open, his hat is tilted to the side. Just to see that cap tilted to the side, this brings me great joy because the idea that he’s stubborn and reckless and now the company drummer, he’s going to just do whatever he wants to do. He’s not going to do what we want him to do. So that’s the kind of language that I think in terms of “how do we assess the individuals there?” The individual men found their ways to work through the experience of war and the company.

KW: And what we see with the men is they are very conscious of being photographed and wanting to look a certain way. And so when I look at James Roberts, I think “here’s a man who knows he’s being photographed and who is deciding that his image is going to be captured in a very particular way.”

DW: Yes. His image is captured in a very particular way and it’s his way. It’s not the company way. And, and I find that just, just amazing, just the way that he is able to present that. And he’s presenting that not only to the photographer in front of him at the moment, he’s presenting it to the future for us to—whoever receives this image—he’s sending the message to all of us.

KW: And I think that’s a really important point that we may lose sight of. They are aware of this and that’s what your work shows so clearly—they are aware of the future. They are aware of who’s going to be examining, who may encounter these photographs. And so they have an investment in how they’re going to be captured.

DW: Yes.

KW: So you write that using photographs to study the Civil War challenges the historical record, and that photographs tell us something more than that there are just men who were there and that they serve which is, I think, how a lot of people may encounter the photographs, especially of Black soldiers. So how do you see these sources as challenging the historical record?

DW: I believe that the photographs are evidence, and they spark memories. They tell different stories that broadens the history of Black presence during the Civil War. Those four years of the Civil War, we only know about the enslaved experience. I believe these photographs also show the activism of Black soldiers and their quest for freedom and to work for the freedom of others.

We know about the South. We know about the fight of the Confederate soldiers, because of the Confederate monuments that are throughout the South. We know it through Gone With The Wind, through that movie that’s 1939, and we’ve lived it.

We’ve cried with Gone With The Wind and not understanding the full story, you know, but there’s a…there’s a play in terms of the experience of “how do we imagine these soldiers?” Many of them also were cooks. Many of them were laborers and not soldiers. And then the experience of these photographs were important for them to see themselves as soldiering, see themselves in their uniforms, inviting other soldiers to be in the photographs with them in terms of their company. Having the opportunity to photograph with a family member, if they are about to leave, take a boat, you know, about to walk for 10 hours, but having that opportunity to go to the camp photographer, the opportunity to photograph…have that photograph made is not only preserving that moment, but it’s also seeing that future.

But also when they’re on the battleground and when they’re on the fields when they’re fighting and to be reminded when they look at the photograph of their little girl or their wives, that “this is what I’m fighting for,” you know, and that’s something that, I really think it’s really important to…I wanted to share in that experience.

KW: And I think you do, and you do it so well. It becomes very clear how connected the men are, how centered they are within a larger sort of circle of African American community and family. Can you tell us the story of Captain Garland White’s reunion with his mother Nancy?

DW: Oh yes. Um, as I mentioned, this is a family album in a sense, it’s of so many family stories that I felt were necessary to tell. There’s a Union Captain, Garland White, and he was also the chaplain. His company was entering into Richmond and a few people at the town and soldiers said, “Oh, you need to meet this woman who’d like to meet you.”

The story is that he made his way over to a woman who looked at him and asked, “What is your name?” And he says, “Garland White.” She asks “Where were you born?” And he says, you know, in this state… “Where did you leave?” And then he says he was sold into slavery, basically, south into Georgia. She asks the name of the person who purchased him. He says the name back to her. She says, “And then where did you leave after you left?” And he said he moved north to Canada, and she asked another question and all of her questions, she knew the answer and she said, “Garland, this is your mother.”

And for 20 years, she searched for her son. But at the same time, what I found fascinating about that exchange is that she followed his life and somehow she was able to receive reports about his life, his livelihood, and his commission and that experience.

So that story to me brings tears to my eyes, warms my heart. It’s the experience of the bond that she had and the understanding that she lived a life looking—her entire life—looking for her son as he moved forward and up the ranks and to freedom.

KW: What we also see from those records and the way you put them together is that freedom is a family affair. It’s not just something that an individual sees for her or himself, you know, they’re not free as individuals, unless all of them, all of their people are free.

DW: And that’s true about freedom. Freedom is collective, you know, freedom is community and that sense of joy that all of them experience. There is a doctor by the name of Seth Rogers, who was in the Sea Islands at the time. I think January 1, 1863, he wrote in his diary about witnessing the joy of people who were free, black people who were free and the way that they expressed the possibilities of freedom and their joy of life.

And this is 1863. So they had the ring shell. They prayed. They sing, you know, the American songs, but they imagine their lives in terms of “sweet land of liberty.” They believe in the sweet land of liberty and he witnessed it and he wrote about it in one of his diary entries.

KW: You point out the ways in which African American women took agency in their portraits. What reveals that sense of agency in an image, and how do you read these photos to get to that?

DW: I’m reading the photographs based on mobility, that the women who were able to travel, to teach—both black and white women—the image of Charlotte Forten, I find fascinating.

And the way that her diary describes her experience of teaching in the free…newly freed schools created for newly freed children and men and women. But the way that she describes her trips and their encounters in the South, I found fascinating. And the fact that there is a photograph of her holding a book in one image.

And then there’s other images where she probably sat in a studio in Philadelphia where she lived as a teacher. So she imagined her life as someone who was committed to education. I also find it important to mention that in her diaries, that she talked about wearing her pants, how she traveled and her mobility in terms of that aspect of it.

And there’s an image of contrabands, as it was called, the group of people who were formerly enslaved and basically, in between state of living as a free person, as well as a bonded person. So looking at the dress for me had a lot to…for me to imagine that these are men and women who left with the clothes on their back; they carried what they had with them.

There’s a group portrait where a woman who’s pregnant in the image, her dress is formally stylized. You can see the upper waist of her dress, but also there’s an older woman that’s next to her—could be her mother—that her arm is linked in her arm and her mother is holding her bonnet.

So with the photographs she probably removes the bonnet so her face is seen. There is a woman who appears to be a nurse, the way that she has a white scarf around her neck. But then there were washer women as well. So we began to think about how the washer women were essential in the safety and care of the soldiers, but also of the men and women who were seen on the battlegrounds.

I also knew based on photographs I saw of Sojourner Truth—there was a photograph of Sojourner Truth with her grandson on her lap, placed on her lap. Just a fantastic photograph because we know Sojourner Truth was known for her famous images, but having a photograph of her grandson on her left, she’s also presenting another story.

KW: So, Sojourner Truth is someone who is really interesting because she controls her image and she sells it. How was she able to do that? Who were those photos for? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

DW: Yes. Sojourner Truth, there are nine images just that we know, basically, because they’re circulating more and more. I learned from Nell Painter’s research, and also reading others, Sojourner Truth lectured around the country. She lectured about the experience of the injustices of slavery, the difficult experience that she had as a young young woman and recognizing the story that she wanted to express about slavery through abolitionism, the experience of what she felt as a woman.

She went to the photographer’s studio, and there were photographers in Michigan that photographed her and she coined the phrase “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” And at that time, photography was known as a shadow, but also in terms of her figure, if we use it metaphorically, her figure was the shadow and the substance, not only the abolitionist movement, but also her body.

So we think about substance in multiple ways. And that’s how I became interested in the way that she circulated images. She and Frederick Douglass understood the importance of biography through photography. She was dressed differently in some of the images where she had a cape or a crocheted shawl. She wore a bonnet as a respectable woman. Her head was covered. She’s seated, she’s standing. She has a handbag that probably had the photographs in that she sold after her lectures.

So she was aware of the importance of images and importance of people wanted to know, wanted to recognize that they attended and proof that there was evidence they attended her lecture, and she sold those images.

KW: So was it common at the time for people like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to own their photos, to own the images that were taken of them? Or were they unique in that respect?

DW: It was not common. And it was unique. It was unique because they understood the battle that Black people had in terms of combating the dehumanizing images of Black people that circulated—images that circulated that humiliated the physicality of Black people based on the difference of sizes, skin color, body types—so photographers, and sometimes illustrators, would exaggerate features or use colors to change the image or use text, and text was part of that. And then also the aspect of advertising during that time—soap advertising of that time period—they use the Black body as unclean and so that is…that’s central to the different narratives of how popular culture imagined the Black body in that sense, in that visual sense.

And that was difficult for Black people to move forward out of being recognized as human. And I think that that’s an important, important moment to pause on—two key figures who knew slavery and who could also use their own stories to move forward and that way. And so these archives…these archives speak in multiple languages at different times and based on the stories that they wanted to preserve, or they could not forget.

And that’s part of why I wanted to have that sense of voice, the images that we see of, of the shuffling negro in the movies that that’s not what actually happened. These were defiant people.

KW: So we talked a little bit about how…about soldiers, or the subjects of photographs, their awareness of being assessed and why their image is being taken. So how much of how they want to be seen do you think is a reflection of how they see themselves and a counter to how they know or believe they may be seen by others, particularly white people?

DW: The soldiers that posed understood the power of the photographer’s studio. They understood the power of posing, the power of re-imagining the self through wearing a uniform and receiving all of the camp material to preserve their lives. The sense of pride that is presented in their pose is everlasting. The images—because, not only that they’re countering the negative images that are circulating—but the images that they are posing, they’re not going to be circulated in the larger arena.

They’re posing for their family members, they’re posing for themselves and their friends. So the conversation of that portrait is internal. You know, it’s in the church, it’s in the classroom and it’s in the home. So here, the images are on mantles or in pockets or in albums, but that’s an internal conversation that does not have anything to do with the larger world.

And it’s an insular Black world. When I think about Elizabeth Alexander’s book, The Black Interior, it is the epitome of the black interior—of how black people see themselves through that reflection in the mirror. And it’s not through the reflection of those negative images. And that’s why those photographic studios were important for the soldiers.

KW: So today these images are being rediscovered and they’re circulating online. So not only the images of soldiers, but these late 19th, early 20th century, regally dressed Black people are circulating online, sometimes with context and attribution sometimes without. So what work do you—as a historian and photographer—do you think it’s playing in shaping mostly Black people’s understanding of themselves and the history and the present and the future?

DW: I love My Granddaddy’s Closet. It’s on Instagram. I love what he’s doing. And because it’s a reminder, these are like, kind of subliminal messages to people who don’t love themselves, who don’t know their history, who can’t imagine that Black people live like they lived through the photographs. The hope that people today feel loss are found in those photographs, those historical images. And I love that they’re circulating. I wish there were opportunities to find out how to acquire them and how to use them. But, you know, we don’t know. And that’s the other part, in terms of attribution.

But I am impressed with your generation and, you know, the younger people who are using these images to counter those negative images. There are multiple entries into the images. And I really think it’s really important people to be reminded of that history, because they didn’t get it in the classroom. You know, they didn’t get it at home, but you know, that experience is circulating in the…in social media. And it is social and it is historical and it is personal.

KW: Deborah Willis is a celebrated photographer, a claimed historian of photography and a MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow. She’s professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Her book, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, was published this year by NYU Press.

Next week on Seizing Freedom, we bring you the first in a two-part series on making a living after emancipation.

John M. Washington: A most memorable night that was to me. The soldiers assured me that I was now a free man. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I should work for as my own. I began now to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me.

Deborah Willis

About the Guest

Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and has an affiliated appointment with the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, Africana Studies, where she teaches courses on Photography & Imaging, iconicity, and cultural histories visualizing the black body, women, and gender.

Her research examines photography’s multifaceted histories, visual culture, the photographic history of slavery and emancipation; contemporary women photographers and beauty. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

She is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner).

Professor Willis’s curated exhibitions include: “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits” at the International Center of Photography and “Reframing Beauty: Intimate Moments” at Indiana University. Since 2006 she has co-organized thematic conferences exploring imaging the Black body in the West such as the conference titled “Black Portraiture[s]” which was held in Johannesburg in 2016.

She has appeared and consulted on media projects including documentary films such as Through A Lens Darkly and Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project, which received the ICP Infinity Award 2015, and American Photography, a PBS Documentary.

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Witness Docs.