As slaves, African-Americans were virtually invisible in American history. Although photography was introduced to this country in l840, precious few images of African-Americans survive today. Even after the Civil War there were not many African-American photographers, and very few black people had the time, money or freedom for a portrait sitting. Consequently, little photographic evidence remains to bear witness to the lives of four and a half million Americans of African descent.
Jackie Napolean Wilson, whose own grandfather was born a slave in South Carolina between l853 and l855, has assembled the most comprehensive and significant collection of such images ever brought together in one place. The concrete reality reflected in daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes presents these men and women in situations and attire that bring the truth of their daily lives much closer to us. Such scenes of maternal affection, matrimony, friendship, war and the grim reality of the master/slave relationship help focus our perception of the African-American experience in America in ways not otherwise available to the modern reader. Among these images is the only picture of Abraham Lincoln in the company of an African-American and the earliest known daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (circa 1843).