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.
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.
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.