Every Drop Counts

by Khalyce Washington

As a child, the concept of race was always an unusual one for me. Growing up with a black father, I was told by my father that I was black like he was. By almost everyone else, I was told that I was white or biracial. This was due primarily to my appearance, with extremely light skin and somewhat fine hair. Eventually I came to an understanding of my ‘passing’ as a white person, despite my black ancestry. So when I learned about slavery, I wondered whether I would be able to ‘pass’ during this time as I do today, and if not, what the consequences would be. As I got older I learned more about the status of light skinned black females and how they were often exploited for sexual purposes. This was interesting to me, but didn’t answer my question as most of these women were still visibly of African ancestry, only with lighter complexions. So when I was told to find a product pertaining to African American culture, I knew immediately the type of product I wanted. I didn’t know if I would actually find what I was looking for, but a google search for ‘white slave children’ revealed to me exactly what I had wondered for years. Yes, white passing slaves existed.
White slave children
The artifact is a photograph taken in 1863. Titled as, “Rebecca, Charley and Rosa, Slave Children from New Orleans”, it depicts three children who were once slaves, now emancipated, all Caucasian in appearance. This is likely very far from what most people picture when they hear ‘emancipated slaves’. The children’s black ancestry bonded them to slavery, but their appearance was what prompted their selection for a national charity and abolitionist campaign aimed towards white northerners. The organizers of the campaign believed that white Americans would be more empathetic towards these ‘white slaves’ because of their resemblance to their own children. The campaign was widely publicized through a series of postcards and brought the children on a tour of various cities in the country, advocating for the funding of Louisiana’s black schools and the abolitionist movement.
I was thrilled when I found this because I felt as if it were an artifact I could wholly connect to. When it comes to most things pertaining to African American culture, I am never able to feel a total connection to the work because of my racial experience growing up. I never quite ‘fit’ into African American culture or society, but I could very much connect to this piece which depicted people similar to myself.
This photograph was commissioned by the Union Military, National Freedman’s Association, and National Missionary Association as part of a larger campaign (Niall Mitchell). The Union Military, specifically the department of the Gulf, had an interest in renewing support for the war, as many Americans had become war weary and desertions were common. To do this, they sold a series of photographs, all featuring former slaves. Some were white in appearance, others were dark skinned. They felt that this would remind northern whites of the impact of slavery and further motivate them to support the war in order to ‘rescue’ them from their bondage. The National Freedman’s and Missionary Associations both had similar aims in supporting the campaign, although theirs were slightly more charitable than that of the Union Military. The both sought to better the lives of freed slaves by raising funding for Louisiana’s black schools. They wanted to help not only the subjects of the photographs gain literacy, but also help other freed slaves learn to read and write.
The photograph was taken in 1863, after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was significant to African Americans in that it was meant to legally change their status from enslaved to free. In practical terms though, freedom was only given to those in Union occupied states, and a limited freedom at that. Those still living in Confederate strongholds continued to be bound to slavery until the passing of the Thirteen Amendment which formally forbid people from being enslaved.
This photograph is significant to the time period it emerged from in that it depicted the true reach of racial slavery to many Americans. Even ‘white’ children had been enslaved. Children who by all accounts were respectable and well-mannered. It made an impact in renewing support for the war because it caused whites to feel threatened by slavery for perhaps the first time. Through these photographs they saw children who appeared just as their own did. To imagine the possibility of their own children being enslaved horrified them.
Today, the meaning of this artifact has shifted slightly, although is similar in some way. Its purpose is no longer to drum up support for the civil war or aid in the education of emancipated slaves, but does continue to exemplify the extent of racial slavery. No matter your appearance, if you had a single drop of black blood in you, legally you were black and therefore held in bondage. This classification of any person with African ancestry as black was something which existed in the United States for centuries. Even up until the 1980s, you only needed one black parent to be classified as black. It didn’t matter if your other parent was Filipino or German or Bolivian, you were automatically assigned the highly marginalized status of black. The one drop rule has played a key role in American racial history and this artifact is an excellent example of its effects.

This artifact relates to content I have learned in class in a number of ways. Firstly, it exemplifies the development and practice of a racialized slave system. We discussed early on in the quarter about how slavery was once based on religion. Christian Europeans would enslave other non-Christians on the basis of their religious difference. The problem with this form of slavery for slave holding Christians was that a slave could convert and thus avoid being further enslaved. So when Europeans colonized the North America and found an unmet need for labor, they changed the basis upon which an individual could be enslaved. Slavery became based upon color. If a person was black, it meant that they were enslaved. This definition was further extended with the advent of the ‘one drop rule’ which states that anyone with a single drop of African ancestry was black. This clearly applied in the case of the children depicted in my artifact. Although to the common eye they weren’t ‘black’, the one drop rule made it so that they were due to their ancestry.
The sexual exploitation of black women by white men also comes into play regarding my artifact. These kids didn’t just end up white somehow. They are the product of race mixing, almost certainly through the sexual exploitation of black females by their white masters or other male family members. Many whites who viewed these children were aware of the fact that Rosa and Rebecca, the two lightest skinned females, were likely to become ‘fancy girls’. This was a form of prostitution where they would be sold in order to pleasure white men. While watching 12 Years a Slave, the concept of fancy girls was brought up. It was a horrific fate and something which the campaign, with the support of sympathetic white northerners, aimed to help the girls avoid.

Works Cited

Caust-Ellenbogen, Celia. “White Slaves.” Quakers & Slavery. Bryn Mawr, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Kimball, M.H. http://www.loc.gov/item/2010647845/. 1863. Library of Congress, New Orleans, Louisiana. Web. 11 Nov. 2015

Niall Mitchell, Mary. “The Young White Faces of Slavery.” The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Strange New Land 1619-1776.” African American Studies 101. Savery Hall 260, University of Washington, Seattle. 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

5 thoughts on “Every Drop Counts

  1. 1. Yes, the author’s title does reflect what the blog will be about. It’s very straightforward.

    2. Yes, there is a photo included in the blog. At first I was a little confused because the photo shows white children, but after I started reading the blog, I was able to connect the photo to the title and the rest of the blog.

    3. Since we learned in class that white masters exploited black women during slavery a lot, I would like to know after seeing this photo is how much light skin are these children? I’ve only seen pictures of mixed slave children where you can obviously see their African features, but when I saw this photograph, I honestly mistaken it for white children, which lead to my confusion before reading the blog. Also, if these children could fit in as white children, could they have lied about being white in order to avoid being sold into slavery or for the girls, sold as fancy girls?

    4. The author did a really good job at not only connecting to course material but also they had a personal connection to their artifact as well. Having the personal connection really made their paper more genuine and interesting to read.

    5. I like the flow and organization that the author had in this blog so it’d be nice to have the same aspects for blog #2!

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  2. 1. I love this title, especially because it connects so much to who you are and your background.
    2. Your blog is centered on the picture, which makes it very relevant to your writing. I liked the fact that you were able to connect every aspect of the blog to the picture, and how you were able to discuss the visual aid in the context of course material as well as in its history.
    3. I would like to know if white passing slaves were given preferential treatment, or if they were on the same level as slaves who looked fully black. It would be intriguing to analyze how white slaves with a small percentage of black in them were viewed in contrast to their fully black counterparts.
    4. You connect the artifact to course material really well by mentioning the ‘one drop rule’ as well as by referencing the racial history of slavery to frame your point on how that had an effect on this ‘one drop’ law.
    5. I really enjoyed your blog, and the personal connection you have to the artifact really enhanced its quality. I would suggest maybe next time organizing your paragraphs differently and ending with a conclusion that sums up your thoughts.

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  3. The author’s title reflects what the project will be about. It is a great title. There is a visual representation that aids in the author’s description. I would like to know how the cultural artifact relates to fancy women and how often such an occurrence like this would happen, with children who could clearly pass for whites could be slaves. The author did a very superb job at connecting their blog to the course material. For blog two, I would suggest maintaining the great connection to the course and organization. Good Job!

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  4. The title was rather intriguing and made me interested to read more about it, that along with the artifact, I was ready to know how the two connected. After learning about the one drop rule, that is what I anticipated the post to be about, the title was very good in drawing my attention. I liked how the artifact was related to course material throughout and the personal connection made it that much more interesting. For the second blog, I hope the fluidity remained and that the personal connection was still present and as strong as it was in this first post. Overall I enjoyed reading and learning more about this photograph.

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  5. 1. Yes. The title interested me because it is very special and let me want to know more about this blog.

    2. Yes. The picture you used is very relevant to your blog. Because it is a visual artifact, it makes me can easily understand what you wrote about in the blog.

    3. Author explained everything in the blog. However, I wonder whether the white slaves are treated same as black slavery.

    4. The author connected cultural artifact to the topics we learned from lecture. Also, author connected it to his life.
    5. Good job! Because the blog is connected to today’s life, it will not make people feel boring and I really enjoy it!

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