On June 19, 1865, a full two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation mandated the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy and two months after the end of the Civil War, word reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they were free.
On that Monday, referred to by many as America’s second Independence Day, Union troops marched into Texas, the westernmost Confederate state, bringing news of the end of the war and freedom to 250,000 enslaved African Americans. Known as Juneteenth, the date is celebrated across the United States as the end of chattel slavery.
This Juneteenth, Harvard Art Museums curatorial fellows have selected works of art connected to histories of enslavement, emancipation, and inequality in the United States. As we commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, we hope these selections foster discussion about the relationship of race, history, and artistic production in our nation and the world. This article, the first of a three-part series, places art and objects from the Age of Emancipation in dialogue with the ongoing fight for racial justice today.
Ceramics, Slavery, and the Fight for Abolition
The iconography on the jug pictured above derives from the seal of the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Designed in 1787 to advance the group’s efforts, the emblem originally featured the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother,” surrounding a kneeling Black man in profile, hands and feet shackled. Jasperware cameos (medallions) bearing this emblem were soon manufactured by English potter Josiah Wedgwood, a member of the abolition society. Within months, Wedgwood’s cameos had crossed the Atlantic. With the widespread distribution of the medallions—often incorporated into accessories such as barrettes, bracelets, and pins—British and American abolitionists embraced a visual shorthand that symbolized their shared mission. In the subsequent decades, the design was further disseminated on both sides of the Atlantic through prints, textiles, and transfer-printed ceramics. The jug seen here illustrates one such adaptation. The figure, now frontally facing, is set within a coastal landscape, and the text has been slightly modified. His gaze is locked on the viewer, as he implores us to recognize his humanity before it’s too late—a slave ship fast approaches. Produced over 200 years ago to advocate the abolitionist cause, this jug poses a question still urgent today.
“January 27, 1840 Mr Miles Dave.” The concise inscription on the shoulder of this storage jar appears to be purely informational; it announces the date of its manufacture and the identity of its maker. “Dave” was David Drake, an enslaved potter who produced stoneware in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Between his birth around 1800 and his emancipation at the end of the Civil War, he was enslaved by several individuals who operated commercial potteries, including Lewis Miles—the “Mr Miles” of Drake’s inscription. But the jug’s text does more than convey facts. It declared its maker’s literacy at a time when basic education for enslaved people, including reading and writing, was banned in South Carolina.
Many of Drake’s vessels are signed, dated, and feature his own poetry. His verse often called attention to his enslavement. On a jug dated four days after the one seen here, Drake removes any doubt about his relationship with Miles: “Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / wher the oven bakes & the pot biles.” Drake’s forced labor yielded profit for Miles, who sold the vessels to plantations where they were hauled by others in bondage. But in his pottery, Drake nevertheless found an outlet for creativity. His jars and jugs, and the words on their surfaces, powerfully attest to the human desire for artistic expression.
Sophie Lynford, Rousseau Curatorial Fellow in European Art, Division of European and American Art
Sojourner Truth’s Shadows and Substance
Between 1863 and 1883, abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth sat for at least 28 photographic portraits. She circulated these images of herself in the form of cartes de visite, small-scale cards that were exchanged and collected with enormous enthusiasm in the period. This example shows the formerly enslaved woman knitting and looking directly into the camera. Beneath the image appears Truth’s trademark caption: “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” These words, which refer to Truth’s sale of such photographic portraits in order to support herself and her activism, also pointedly repudiate the conditions of slavery: no longer bought and sold by white slaveowners, she declares her self-possession and makes her image, not her body, the commodity.
While Truth sold her portraits, by mail and at her speaking engagements, to largely white middle-class buyers, these cartes de visite, like most works on paper, had the capacity to circulate easily and widely. For those not yet or only recently emancipated—like the newly freed women Truth taught to knit in Arlington, Virginia—these images might have served as powerful symbols of hope, even if they depicted a life that would remain out of reach for so many.
Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow, Division of European and American Art
Edmonia Lewis: Artist and Activist
Working in Boston at the height of the Civil War, sculptor Edmonia Lewis—pictured here in a carte de visite dated around 1870—leveraged her artistic talents to advance the cause of abolition, producing a series of plaster busts, portrait medallions, and statuettes that were widely exhibited and sold to raise funds for the Union army. The success of Lewis’s work within Boston’s abolitionist circles enabled the artist to move to Rome in 1865, where she joined a sisterhood of American women sculptors who found freedom abroad from the constraints of gender and race in the United States. While in Rome, Lewis produced this portrait bust of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a fervent abolitionist whose work she greatly admired.
Lewis’s journey to international success was not without struggle. As a student at Oberlin College in her youth, Lewis was falsely accused by two white female students of poisoning them with the aphrodisiac “Spanish fly.” Following the incident, Lewis was regularly harassed and, on one occasion, badly beaten and left for dead in a field. Lewis would triumph over her oppressors as one of the first women artists, and certainly the first artist of African American, Haitian, and Ojibwe heritage, to garner international success and acclaim for her work.
Natalia Ángeles Vieyra, Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art, Division of European and American Art