Breaking

The story of Isaac and Rosa, the emancipated slave children from New Orleans, 1863


The boy and the girl looked at the camera. They were old enough to understand the task assigned to them: to stand very still, arms attached, and direct their gaze to the contraption in front of them. Isaac was eight years old and Rosa was six years old.

How two former enslaved children from Louisiana ended up in a Broadway photographer's studio in 1863 requires some explanation. For now, it suffices to know that both children were the property of slaveholders in New Orleans, with their image printed on the cartes-de-visit (a new format for photography in the mid-nineteenth century, before more and more were allowed). Was. One copy, made on separate cards, cheaply) and offered for sale.

According to an article published in Harper's Weekly on January 30, 1864, the biography of Isaac and Rosa is summarized as:

Isaac White is an eight-year-old black boy, but still intelligent compared to his white peers. He has been in school for about seven months, and I dare say that one boy in fifty would not have improved that much in that time.

Rosina Downs is not yet seven years old. She is a fair baby boy with a fair complexion and silky hair. His father is in the rebel army. She has one sister who is fair like herself and three brothers who are dark complexioned. Her mother, a bright mulatto, lives in a poor cottage in New Orleans and works hard to support her family.

The sale of his drawings would fund newly established schools for former slaves in southern Louisiana, an area already occupied by the Union Army.

In fact, the civil war was still holding on to the nation, with the death toll and discontent rising. The portrait of Isaac and Rosa, which was at once fascinating and evocative, said much about the uncertainties hanging in the air that year.

They must have made an unusual pair, a dark skinned boy and a fair skinned girl. Although there were many racial taboos in nineteenth-century America, a white girl on the arm of a black boy was certainly the most reprehensible.

That Rosa was a "colour" girl who only looked fair—that she messed with a person's ability to see black—only to make the pairing of the two more interesting. Isaac wore a suit with tie and collar, his hat in hand, and Rosa wore a dress and cape, full petticoat, and a fancy hat.

Despite his young age, he stood to enter like a gentleman and lady. But that's what the picture meant: For adults to guess they would become.

The picture "Isaac and Rosa, Freed Slave Children from the Free Schools of Louisiana", at the top, was a picture about the future. Or rather, about the many promises that seemed possible in 1863.


Isaac and Rosa were messengers of a message they only partially understood. Both children were born into slavery in the south, freed by the Union army in 1863, and taken on a tour to the north, along with many other children and adults.

Three of the children, including Rosa, appeared white—a testament, their sponsors argue, to the brutal system of slavery, which acknowledged the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by white men and, in return, the children were somehow fair-skinned. produces as. "White" baby.

Through public appearances and the sale of photographs (so-called "photos of white slave children"), the group's sponsors proposed raising funds for the education of former slaves recently freed in the South.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people in Union-held territory. While this did not free every enslaved person (some, within the Union Territory, remained slaves while many others had already freed themselves by obeying Confederate troops), it made it clear that the abolition of slavery was a civil war. will result.

Since the signing of the Proclamation, the war had become increasingly unpopular in the North. Furthermore, the large urban working class feared the competition that could come from the millions of free blacks in the South who would work for low wages.

Many in the north looked carefully at the prospect of immediate liberation. At best, the skeptics declared, former slaves would refuse to work or move north to escape the plantations, leaving the cotton fields of the south lying fallow.

Few images can better portray a peaceful liberation than a portrait of Isaac and Rosa. By some readings, his picture was an assurance to northern audiences about a post-slavery future.

Images of neatly dressed "emancipated slave children" who were attending school were preserved in portraiture on photo cards and presented like their white northern middle-class counterparts, giving education to young former slaves. Presented as a means to transform into a model of discipline and propriety.

Guiding schoolchildren like Isaac and Rosa from the light of northern "civilization" would eliminate the effects of slavery, instead producing hardworking young people with the desires of free market consumers. In Isaac and Rosa's vision, salvation would be peaceful and prosperous for the nation.


Looking at Isaac and Rosa, some nineteenth-century viewers may have seen the triumph of abolition. Free people of color, in particular, had begun to doubt the possibility of freedom and equality for people of African descent in the United States.

Among white northern audiences, the portrait of Isaac and Rosa may have raised more eyebrows than Dan's. If her youth and innocence pointed to the cruelty of slavery, Rosa's pale skin brought slavery closer to the home of white Northerners. Aimed at white audiences, the scene was a racist argument advocating the abolition of slavery.

There was an institution here that could enslave not only black children but also light-skinned children like Rosa. What, then, will stop evil slave-holders from enslaved white people? Many northerners who arrived in the South during the war saw large numbers of enslaved people who appeared to be "white".

The dark-skinned boy and the fair-skinned girl, both "coloured", raised the question of who was "white" and who was not, and how one could (or could not) tell the difference.

What are the consequences of freeing racially ambiguous people like Rosa? Would liberation encourage further "mixing" between races?

In "Visualizing the Color Line", Carol Goodman argues that the photographs point to the physical and sexual abuse of mothers of children.

When publishing a photo of eight former slaves, the editor of Harper's Weekly wrote that slavery allows slave-holding "'gentlemen' [from] seduced [of] the most friendless and defenseless."

The ghost of "white" girls being sold as "fancy girls" or mistresses in southern slave markets may have made northern families fear for the safety of their daughters. Similarly, the idea that white slave-owning fathers would sell their children in slave markets raised the concerns of Northerners.

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