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Classic Image of American Slavery

KIMBALL, M. H. (English) Emancipated Slaves

New York: George Hanks, 1863

Oval albumen print, (5 x 7 in.) original mount. Overall size 8 x 10 inches. Printed title: “Emancipated Slaves brought from Louisiana by Col. Geo. H. Hanks The children are from the schools established by order of Maj. Gen. Banks.” Printed on the mount beneath the photograph are the names of the freed slaves as well as the photogapher’s and publisher’s imprints and copyright notice. Very good condition, with minor wear to the mount.

One of the great American slavery photographs, this portrait was made “to raise money to educate former slaves in Louisiana, a state still partially held by the Confederacy. One group portrait, several cartes de visite of pairs of students, and numerous portraits of each student were made.

Harper’s Weekly published this iconic photograph as a wood engraving on January 30, 1864. In the accompanying article, “Emancipated Slaves White and Colored,” Harper’s described each of the freed slaves, including Chinn: “Wilson Chinn is about 60 years old. He was ‘raised’ by Isaac Howard of Woodford Country, Kentucky. When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans. This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters ‘V.B.M.’ Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp. Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.”

“The images of Wilson Chinn were especially famous. On his forehead are branded the initials of his former owner, Volsey B. Marmillion. To make the marks more visible to viewers, Kimball added a bit of unintended insult to injury: he retouched the initials on the original negative to make them appear even more visible in the albumen silver print” (Rosenheim, Photography and the American Civil War).

This photograph is among the most famous and most influential images of American slaves. The only other example we have seen in the trade made $30,000 at Swann in March 2015.