When eight former slaves aimed to drum up support for struggling African-American schools in the 1860s, they believed they had just the thing.
In order to garner sympathy – and funds – from rich northerners as they toured the country, organisers from New Orleans portrayed the slaves as white for a propaganda campaign, using four children with mixed-race ancestry and pale complexions.
They believed the white faces of Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, Rosina Downs and Augusta Broujey would encourage donors to sympathise with the plight of recently-emancipated slaves and give more generously.
Propaganda: Four child slaves of mixed-race heritage with pale skin were used in pictures to raise funds for African-American schools following Emancipation
The youngsters are pictured together and with dark-skinned children in sepia-tinged photographs entitled ‘Emancipated Slaves’. Dressed in dapper clothing, they are photographed wrapped in American flags above text such as: ‘These children were turned out of [a] hotel on account of color’.
The images were mass-produced for a fundraising campaign following Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in 1863.
Almost immediately after the law came into practice, Northerners and abolitionists set up relief organisations, which battled to establish schools and provide other forms of support – but their resources were limited.
They soon discovered it was near-impossible to find sympathy and support in a war-torn and racially-prejudiced county.
Campaign: In some, the ‘white’ children are pictured with darker-skinned former slaves. Organisers hoped their skin would drum up sympathy from northerners
‘Learning is wealth’: The money raised from the images, which sold for 25 cents each, went towards educating freed slaves in New Orleans, Louisiana
To keep Louisiana’s schools – comprised of nearly 10,000 pupils and nearly half the state’s number of black children – running, organisations launched a propaganda campaign. It was run by the National Freedman’s Association, the American Missionary Association and officers from the Union Army.
They gathered five children – four with pale complexions – and three adults who had all been slaves and sent them to the North on a publicity tour, according to Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, author of White Slaves.
Joined by three former adult slaves – Wilson, Mary and Robert – and Colonel George Hanks of the Corps d’Afrique, they posed for photographs in New York and Philadelphia.
A story by Harper’s Weekly at the time called the children ‘perfectly white’ and ‘very fair’. It also noted the fifth child, Isaac, was ‘a black boy of eight years; but none the less intelligent than his whiter companions’.
Freed: Many of the photographs focus on 11-year-old Rebecca. ‘To all appearances she is perfectly white,’ wrote a publication at the time, Harper’s Weekly
Troupe: Along with the three other ‘white’, one darker-skinned child and three adult, Rebecca travelled around the north to drum up funds and support
The publication described each of the former slaves. In the section about the adults, Wilson Chinn was described as ‘about 60 years old’ with the initials of his former ‘owner’ – a sugar planter – branded on his head with a hot iron.
Mary Johnson, a former cook, was described as having scars covering her arms and back. They were the result of cuts given to her by her ‘mistress’ and ‘master’ after she ‘was half an hour behind time in bringing his five o’clock cup of coffee’. She later ran away from the family.
The third adult, Robert Whitehead, was a preacher who had been sold for $1,525 as a house and ship painter. ‘The reverend gentleman can read and write well, and is a very stirring speaker,’ the magazine explained. He later enlisted in the army.
Isaac White was the child with a complexion darker than the other children. Harper’s writes how ‘he has been in school about seven months, and I venture to say that not one boy in fifty would have made as much improvement in that space of time’.
One of the ‘white’ children, 11-year-old Rebecca Huger, had been a slave in her father’s house. ‘To all appearance she is perfectly white,’ the publication writes. Augusta Broujey, nine, was also owned by a family member – her half-brother – and was born to a woman who was ‘almost white’.
Saved: One of the ‘white’ former slaves was Charles Taylor, left, who had been sold into slavery twice, once by his father. Six-year-old Rosa, right, also featured
Patriotic: The photo aimed to align the children with those of white northerners. The text indicated that treating them any differently was shocking (right)
Blonde six-year-old Rosina Downs came from a home where her mother ‘has hard work to support her family’.
The only ‘white’ boy, Charles Taylor, had been sold twice as a slave – once by his father. ‘The boy is decidedly intelligent,’ the magazine writes.
Each photograph was mass-printed to the size of a calling card and sold for 25 cents, Caust-Ellenbogen writes. Each card explained the money would go to schools in Louisiana ‘devoted to the education of colored people’.
Kathleen Collins, author of Portraits of Slave Children, said it was hoped that ‘these enigmatic portraits of Caucasian-featured children’ would arouse ‘Northern benefactors to contribute to the future of a race to which these children found themselves arbitrarily confined’.
Of the series, at least 22 different prints remain in existence today.
Standing strong: The children, who were all from New Orleans, were photographed and paraded around the country in 1863 and 1864