One of the lasting legacies of slavery is generations of people with mixed African-European ancestry who “look white.”
It is exactly this dichotomy, between what defines a person’s race and their physical characteristics, that was the catalyst for a 1860s publicity campaign to raise money for struggling public schools for emancipated slaves.
The images of three adults and five children, four of whom were dubbed “white” slaves, were part of a drive to drum up sympathy from wealthy Northerners for potential donations.
It was hoped the white faces of Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, Rosina Downs and Augusta Broujey, who all were of mixed ancestry, would encourage donors to sympathize with the plight of recently freed slaves and give more generously.
The group of New Orleans slaves were first featured in an engraving of a photograph entitled “Emancipated Slaves, White and Colored” in an issue of Harper’s Weekly in January 1864.
Kathleen Collins, author of Portraits of Slave Children, said advocates hoped that “these enigmatic portraits of Caucasian-featured children” would encourage “benefactors to contribute to the future of a race to which these children found themselves arbitrarily confined.”
The story by Harper’s Weekly described the children’s pale skin as “perfectly white” and “very fair.” It also noted the fifth child, Isaac, was “a black boy of eight years; but none the less intelligent than his whiter companions.”
The images were mass-produced, and sold, for a fundraising campaign following Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves in 1863. The proceeds were donated to freedmen schools in Louisiana. Of the series, about 22 prints are still in existence.
The campaign, run by the National Freedman’s Association, the American Missionary Association and officers from the Union Army, was also used to highlight the complexity of the “one-drop rule,” when any person with “one drop of black blood” was considered black, despite their physical appearance.
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