This lithograph depicts African Americans leaders and white political leaders who furthered the cause of African American citizenship. The focal point of the print is the portraits of Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels. The surrounding portraits are of Representative John Roy Lynch, President Abraham Lincoln, President James A. Garfield, President Ulysses S. Grant, Representative Joseph Hayne Rainy, Representative Charles Edmund Nash, John Brown, and Representative Robert Smalls.
African Americans have been depicted often in positions of servitude. Racist imagery of African Americans existed throughout the North and South during Reconstruction as controversy increased over civil rights and suffrage. Rarely were African Americans represented in acts of autonomy. Therefore, when Frederick Douglass was given a lithograph of a portrait of Hiram Revels by Theodor Kaufmann in 1870, he praised the dignified imagery. He stated, "We colored men so often see ourselves described and painted as monkeys, that we think it a great piece of good fortune to find an exception to this general rule." This lithograph published by J. Hoover in 1881 is another exception to African American likenesses during the late nineteenth century. The four corners of the print depict scenes from African American history, laboring in the cotton fields, Civil War soldiers fighting in battle, celebrating Emancipation Day, and taking advantage of new educational opportunities. In addition to the historical scenes, three head-and-shoulder portraits stand out amid the smaller, surrounding images.
This print rejects traditional black imagery of the late nineteenth century, and instead depicts African Americans embracing their history and heritage. These men of the Reconstruction era provided leadership to a black community thrust into a democratic system after years of exclusion. Their leadership helped define the African American's place in political life for the first time.
Blanche Bruce was born a slave in Virginia in 1841. He was educated, and during the Civil War, he escaped to Kansas, where he set up the state's first school for black children. Later, Bruce moved to Mississippi, and in 1875 the state legislature sent him to the United States Senate. Frederick Douglass was one of the most notable African American abolitionists. Born enslaved in Maryland in 1818, Douglass escaped slavery as a young man. Mostly self-educated, he later became a great orator, editor, and political activist for justice and equality for all. Douglass held a number of governmental positions, including U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia, recorder of deeds of the District of Columbia, and U.S. minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti.
Hiram Revels was born free in North Carolina. He graduated from Knox College in Illinois. During the Civil War, Revels served as army chaplain for a black regiment and helped establish freedmen's schools. In 1866, Revels moved to Mississippi and he was elected to the state senate in 1869. In 1870, the state legislature elected him the first black member of the United States Senate.
1. Who is shown in the lithograph? Why are they included?
2. Describe the scenes included in this lithograph? Why are they significant? Why would they resonate with African Americans?
1. Frederick Douglass commented on the importance of having African Americans depicted with “dignity” in artwork. Why was that important? What challenges did African Americans struggle with in their public images and negative stereotypes?
Located in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting is a portrait of Robert Smalls. Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839, Smalls worked for many years on the docks of Charleston. During the Civil War, he worked for the Confederacy on a supply ship. In May 1862, however, Smalls and six other black crewmen secretly guided the ship out of Charleston harbor and delivered it to officers of the United States. The ship also carried nine enslaved passengers who successfully escaped to Union lines. For his work, Smalls was made a lieutenant in the United States Army. During Reconstruction, he enjoyed a successful political career and represented the state of South Carolina for five terms in Congress. Smalls served as collector of customs in Beaufort, South Carolina, from 1897 until 1913. He died in 1915.
Rabinowitz, Howard N., ed. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.