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Pair 5: Picturing African-American Identity

Pair 5: Picturing African-American Identity

Personal identity, status and achievement can be expressed through the art of portraiture. Clothing, dress and other details within a portrait image often signal accomplishment and status. These factors were especially important for African Americans in the decades after emancipation.

Major Martin R. Delany, U.S.A.
Cincinnati: John Smith, 1865 from photograph by Abraham Bogardus
Lithograph, hand colored

This commercially produced lithograph of Major Martin R. Delany was featured in 101 Treasures. The highest ranking African American in the United States Army during the Civil War, Delany is shown proudly displaying his uniform and dress sword in tribute to his military achievements.

Many African American civilians embraced photography in the 19th century as a method to express personal dignity countering the racist caricatures that had become commonplace in American visual culture. This portrait of an unidentified woman from Detroit in a fine dress and jewelry makes a case for normalizing her inclusion in society.

Solomon Parker Harris had this photo taken when he was the only African American in the University of Michigan law school class of 1891. Harris became a successful lawyer, civic leader and politician, winning a city council seat in Nashville, Tennessee in 1911.

This small portrait of an unidentified man in work clothes is likely a personal photograph that was not widely distributed. Unlike the lithograph of Delany, images of this type may document the life of an individual who does not appear in any other historical record.

Solomon Parker Harris, Alumnus, University of Michigan Law class of 1891
Ann Arbor: Herbert Randall, 1891
Cabinet card photograph
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography

[Woman with long curls]
Detroit: Charles Eisenhart, circa 1875
Carte de visite photograph
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography
[Man seated with a cane]
Detroit: William H. Lewis, circa 1860s
Carte de visite photograph