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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

- Joshua Johnson, portrait paintings, ca. 1803-1810
- Robert Seldon Duncanson, landscape paintings, 1853-1863
- David Drake, ceramic pots and verses, 1830s-1860s

- Augustus Washington, daguerreotypes, 1844-1875  NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

Enslaved as well as free African Americans pursued opportunities to create poetry, paintings, sculpture, and other forms of artistic self-expression. Many, of course, had to create their opportunities to create. (Perhaps southern archives hold drawings created by slaves in the private papers of antebellum slaveholders, there to be discovered by researchers.) Presented here are works of four African Americans—two free-born, one enslaved, and one probably a freed slave. View each work as itself first; then consider its meaning to its creator and its time; then analyze its place in African American art overall. What makes a work of art "art"? What makes it historically important?
  • Joshua Johnson was a self-taught painter who produced portraits of elite Baltimore families for over thirty years. Little is certain of his background. Probably born enslaved, perhaps of a black woman and a white man, perhaps in Maryland or the French West Indies, he probably became free about age twenty. Here we view two of his portraits created between 1803 and ca. 1807—of a white man, a white woman, a white family, and one of his few known portraits of an African American. What impressions do you have of the portraitist from his portraits? of his subjects?
  • Robert Seldon Duncanson was a free-born painter born of a black woman and a white man in New York. His painting career flourished in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Freedmen's Bureau of Ohio underwrote a European study trip for Duncanson in 1853. Here we view three of Duncanson's landscapes created between 1853 and 1863—The Quarry, Landscape with Rainbow, and Uncle Tom and Little Eva (created a year after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin). What impressions do you have of Duncanson from his paintings? What does he convey in his landscapes? Why do you think he painted Uncle Tom and Little Eva? What reaction might the painting have received in 1853?
  • David Drake was an enslaved potter on a South Carolina plantation—famous today beyond what he could have imagined due to the verses he wrote on many of his jars (his pots now sell for up to $100,000); "wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all - and every nation" is one of his telling verses. "Dave the Potter" died as a slave in 1863. What do we learn about Drake from his verses? from his pots? How might antebellum southern whites have interpreted his verses?
  • Augustus Washington, the son of a former slave, learned how to produce daguerreotype photographs while at Dartmouth College and later opened a studio in Hartford, Connecticut. Here we view two groups of his daguerreotypes: (1) fourteen portraits of the wealthy white families of Hartford, in addition to one portrait of John Brown, the leader of the Harper's Ferry rebellion; and (2) fourteen portraits of African American emigrants in Liberia. How does he pose his white and black subjects (or how do they pose themselves?)
Use the questions in Discussing Art to study these works, in addition to the Discussion Questions below. (10 pages, plus Washington daguerreotypes that you may choose to print.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do these African American artists define themselves as artists, in their terms in their time?
  2. Put another way, to what extent does their artistic activity define their identity (as far as you can determine)?
  3. What can you infer about these artists' motivation and choice of medium?
  4. What can you determine about the limitations or freedom in which they worked?
  5. From what you can infer, how did white people respond to the artistic creations of these African Americans?
  6. How and where might you find undiscovered artistic works by antebellum African Americans?
  7. Compare these artists with the entrepreneurs of the previous section (#3). What differences and similarities do you find?
  8. Compare and contrast these artists by status (slave, freed slave, free-born), and by gender, geographic region, audience for their work, and the spur that led to their artistic endeavors (as far as you can tell). What patterns do you find, if any?
  9. Compare Joshua Johnson's portraits of white people with his portrait of a black man. What differences do you find?
  10. Compare Washington's daguerreotypes of white Americans and black Liberians. Consider stance, facial expression, direction of expression, clothing, pose or use of hands, and objects in the photograph.
  11. Compare the portraits of the white elite by Joshua Johnson (oil paintings) and Augustus Washington (daguerreotype photographs). How do they differ by creator and medium? How do the black artists feel about their subjects?
  12. In his landscape paintings, how does Duncanson convey a mood, a sense of place, and, perhaps, a message? View other Duncanson landscapes online (see supplemental sites).
  13. Categorize David Drake's verses (religious, personal, etc.). What makes his verses witty and at times biting? How does he comment on his enslaved status in his verses?
  14. Compare these antebellum works with postbellum works by African Americans in Vols. II and II of The Making of African American Identity, e.g., the paintings by Johnson and Duncanson in this section with those by Edward Bannister in Vol. II and by Romare Bearden and others in Vol. III.

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Johnson portraits:  3
Duncanson landscapes:  3
Drake pots and verses:  4
Washington daguerreotypes:  View online; print selected photographs
TOTAL 10 pages, plus selected daguerreotypes
Supplemental Sites

Joshua Johnson Robert Seldon Duncanson [Recent scholarship has ascertained that Duncanson's middle name was Seldon, not Scott.] David Drake (Dave the Potter) Augustus Washington Scipio Morehead, engraver and poet, creator of 1773 frontispiece image of Phillis Wheatley (see #6: Poets), in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Education, Arts, and Culture, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

- Joshua Johnson, portrait of the James McCormick family, oil on canvas, ca. 1805. Maryland Historical Society, #1920-6-1. Reproduced by permission.
- Augustus Washington, daguerreotype photograph of Charles Edwin Bulkeley, circa 1852, in folding display case. Connecticut Historical Society. Permission pending. Digital image from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. Permission pending.
- David Drake, ceramic pot, 1859, with verse "The forth of July is surely come / to blow the fife - and beat the drum," detail of photograph. Atlanta History Center. Permission pending. - Robert Seldon Duncanson, The Quarry, oil on canvas, ca. 1855-1863. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gift of the Council of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in commemoration of their fiftieth anniversary, 2006.11. Reproduced by permission.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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