Archive for the ‘Slaves/slavery’ Category

“And breathing figures learnt from thee to live”

Another item of interest about SARAH MOORHEAD (see previous posts) is her connection to a slave of the family called Scipio who is thought to have been a talented working artist around 1773. Sarah was a teacher of drawing and painting so it is possible, even likely, that she recognized his talent and was his teacher. But the only piece of art ascribed to Scipio Moorhead that has survived is the portrait of Phillis Wheatley, on the frontispiece of her published book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (See posts on Wheatley here, here, here, here. here, and here.) A poem, “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,” written by this enslaved African-American poet has been cited as evidence that the engraving was made from a painting by Moorhead. (A note by a white reader in an early copy of the book mentions Scipio by name.)

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!

It is true that the Moorheads and the Wheatleys were neighbors and that the two slaves knew each other. However, the assumption that Scipio is the artist of the frontispiece has been challenged by Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. He presents evidence based on the Scipio’s age, his contact with other painters, the current styles in portraiture, and his appearance in ads for the auctioning of the estate of John Moorhead and that of his daughter Mary. The historian J.L. Bell, in his blog Boston 1775, is quite persuaded that Slauter is right. He suggests that an another black artist working at the time with several works attributed to him, Prince Demah, may have been the actual artist of the Wheatley portrait. See two posts by my colleague Louise North on Prince Demah here and here.

Eric Slauter’s article appears in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 89. Read the complete poem HERE.

posted August 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art,Moorhead, Scipio,Poetry,Prince Demah,Wheatley, Phillis

“the Blacks are so bad in their nature”

FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON did marry Tobias Lear. (See previous post in which she solicited Martha Washington’s advice on Lear’s proposal.) Fanny continued to carry out Martha’s instructions about work to be done at Mount Vernon before she arrives.

Following is a letter whose content makes one squirm: Martha includes remarks about the nature and conduct of enslaved workers that reflect the mind set of white owners and the stereotypes to which they subscribed. Note that white servants are treated differently and receive better quarters and food than their enslaved counterparts.

Philadelphia May the 24th 1795My Dear Fanny,

Your affectionate favor of the 20th is come to my hands—I am very glad to hear by it that your children are well—and yourself—I am truly sorry that any thing should happen in your family to give you pain Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints that one is heardly sure of keeping them I hope you will not find in him much loss the Blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them—

from what I have heard of Mr Pearces House Keeper I wished very much to have her engaged to stay at mount vernon while I was at home so goe into the sellers meat house and look into the milk and butter Kitty has had it so long under her care—that I think she should be looked too to give a better account of it—we shall bring white servants with us which will make it necessary that I should have a person to see to thair having what is proper, done for them, and have thair vltuals alwas in proper order—I think it is really necessary to have a person such a one as Mrs Skinner is in our family while I am there besids that of looking after the women that work they always Idle half their time away about thair own business and wash so bad that the cloths are not fitt to use—if she will come only to stay while I am thair I shall be very much pleased to have her—I do expect we shall have a good deal of company many hear talk of coming to see the Federal city [Washington, DC, under construction] and will take that oppertunity to come to Mt Vernon while we are there

I am my Dear Fanny very sencible of your goodness and attention in having everything done for me as you can—but it always gave me pain to see you have so much trouble while I was at home—if Mrs Skinner will come I shah be much happyer to have her to do the drudgry—and then I shall have the plasure to have more of your company—and shah see my person whose bussnes it is to attend to all the wants and cares about the house

l am very much obliged to you my dear Fanny for offering to preserve strawberry for me—I dont think it will be worth while—to do any—I wish to live in a plain stile while I am at home—and we shall always have greene fruit which can be preserved at the time it is wanted which will be better for use—should thair be any goosberry I should wish to have some bottled and some of the morelly cherrys dried—I should think old Doll cannot have forgot how to do them [,] if she has Mrs Skinner may come to the hous as soon as she will—and she may have all the Beds and Bed Cloths air and clened [,]the Bedsteads all taken down and cleaned and well rubbed—so that thair may be nothing of that kind to do when I come home—and to have every part of the House cleaned from the garrets to the sellers as I wish to have every thing done that can be done before I come home

Thank god we are all well—the President has been very well since his return

The girls and Washington* are well—and join the President and me in love to you and children . . . I wish the House was done for when I go to house keeping. . . .

I am with love and affection my dear Fanny your sincear well wisher M Washington

* George Washington Parke Custis, called “Wash”, was Martha’s grandson, the child of her son from her first marriage, John “Jacky” Parke Custis, who died in 1781. Martha’s daughter, Patsy, died at 17. Wash’s sister, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, was one of the girls mentioned in the letter. Both Nelly and Wash were adopted by Martha and George Washington. Two older siblings lived with their mother Eleanor, widow of Jacky, when she remarried.

Citation: See copy of the letter HERE.

posted July 27th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke,Custis, George Washington Parke,Custis, John "Jacky" Parke,Custis, Martha "Patsy",Housekeeping,Lear, Frances "Fanny" Bassett Washington,Lear, Tobias,Mount Vernon,Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“let me know if you are in a certain way”

Martha Washington’s surviving correspondence includes more letters to her niece FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON than anyone else. At this point Fanny had married George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine. They were in residence at Mount Vernon, she managing the household, he the estate. They had a daughter Maria. Martha wrote this letter from Philadelphia, the capital of the United States at that time, on April 19, 1791.

Mr dear Fanny

By Austen who is come home to se his friends I have the pleasure to tell you we are all tolerable well—I have never heard from the president since he left Mount Vernon—nor from you. Some day last week i wrote to you and inclosed some muslin borders for —?— to hem—When they are done be so good as to send them back to me by Austin when he comes as his stay will be short indeed[;] I could but illy spare him at this time but to full fill my promise to his wife[.] The children join me in love to you the major and children—you must let me know if you are in a certain way and when the event will happen, as it must be very inconvenient to you for us to come home about the time—our stay will be short and I wish to have all well if possible at this time[.] I expect to be coming home some time about the first of August—how are your brothers, is B Lewes married—
Adieu my dear Fanny & believe
me your most affectionate
M Washington

Austen was a slave. it was the practice of George and Martha to send the slaves they had in Philadelphia back to Mount Vernon regularly to avoid a Pennsylvania law which allowed slaves to gain their freedom after a six-month residency. Martha asks if Fanny is pregnant.

The letter can be found HERE.

posted July 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Lear, Frances "Fanny" Bassett Washington,Mount Vernon,Pennsylvania,Philadelphia,Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“I give . . . to my daughter Anne my negro Girl Fanny”

The next post will include a letter from ANNE BLAIR to her sister MARY BLAIR BRAXTON. For this post I am including several provisions of the will of the girls’ father, John Blair Sr, written in October of 1771 and recorded in November of that year in York County court records. Blair, Sr. was a member a prominent Virginia family; he served on the Virginia Council and was for a time acting royal governor. His uncle, James Blair, was a founder of the College of William and Mary. John Blair’s wife had died before him and so, according to his will, Blair’s children, including Anne and Mary, were provided for. All were married except for Anne.

Item. I give and bequeath to my Daughter Anne Blair one thousand Pounds Current Money part of my stock in trade with John Prentis and Company with the profits thereof from the Division made in August one Thousand Seven hundred and Sixty Nine and to my Son James Blair the like Sum of One thousand Pounds part of the said with the profits thereof as to my daughter.

Item. I give to my Daughter Mary Braxton my Negro Gurl called Sall Cooper to my daughter Sarah my negro Wench called Great Hannah and her child Kate to my son James my Negro Barbary and her Child Johnny to my daughter Anne my negro Girl Fanny to each of them and their Heirs forever. . . .

Item. It is my will and Desire that all my Slaves and Stocks of all kinds (including my Horses) not before Disposed of be divided into five equal parcels three of which parcels I give and devise to my Son John Blair and his Heirs forever and the other two parcels to my Son James Blair and his Heirs forever. I have given the Greater proportion of my Slaves and Stocks to my Son John he being my Eldest Son and having already a family and several Children.

I have quoted from Blair’s will because I am constantly jarred by the fact that slaves were commonly bequeathed to family members. I am also distressed at the way they are referred to——the females as “wenches”——and how they are casually listed along with horses and other stock. Slaves were often given as wedding presents: when a slave called Oney Judge found out she was to be given by her mistress, Martha Washington, to her granddaughter Elizabeth Custis upon her wedding, Oney ran away. It was also common practice for a child to be given a slave of the same age as a “present,” perhaps for a birthday.

Source for the will is John Blair House Report, Block 22 Building 5 Lot 36 Originally entitled:
“John Blair House Colonial Lot 36 Block 22,” Mary A. Stephenson, 1963, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series—1493, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1990.

posted May 22nd, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Blair, Anne,Blair, Sr., John,Braxton, Mary Blair,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Virginia,Washington, Martha

“Dismantling History” —Titus Kaphar

My friend and colleague Louise North recently commended to my attention an American artist named TITUS KAPHAR. Indeed, upon examination, I find his work fascinating as it frequently deals with history—myth and misremembered—often focusing on the dark sides of events and those we revere as heroes. His paintings are frequently three dimensional or sculptural in nature; there are often layers which peeled away reveal previously hidden or unacknowledged facts or qualities.

In an article in the Art21 magazine dated Dec 2, 2015 called “Dismantling History: An Interview with Titus Kaphar with
Lindsey Davis,” Kaphar says:

I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction is fiction – it’s simply a question of to what degree. As much as we try to speak to the facts of a historical incident, we often alter those facts, sometimes drastically, through the retelling itself.

Understanding this has given me the freedom to manipulate, and change historical images in a way that recharges them for me. Knowing that artists throughout time who have attempted to retell history have always embraced, whether consciously or unconsciously, a degree of fiction, in order to achieve the sentiment of the facts is liberating.

Kaphar credits his art history education at Yale with fostering his belief that “obvious oversights in the canon were regularly understated, suppressed or ignored.” He set out to challenge the viewer, to probe beneath the surface, to gain new insights into the character of his subject. Two paintings strike me as especially provocative since their subjects have figured in this blog.

We sometimes forget that George Washington, the father of our country and acknowledged as its greatest president, was an active slaveholder. When he died there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, more than half of whom were dower slaves from his wife’s estate. Kaphar’s image reminds the viewer of this. The lower half of Washington’s face is masked by streamers attached by (real) rusted nails imprinted with names of slaves and excerpts from ads placed for their recovery. The work’s title “Absconded,” in all likelihood refers to the slave whose name features prominently, one Oney Judge, who in fact did escape and fled to New England. In spite of Washington’s efforts, she was never recovered. The Washingtons could not understand why slaves who were not mistreated would want to be free. See posts about Oney here, here, here, and here.

Another slave who also absconded was Washington’s chef, Hercules. Kaphar’s dramatic representation in tar and oil on canvas obscures Hercules’ face; he’s just another slave forgotten by history. See blog posts on Hercules here and here. Compare what is thought to be a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart with the depiction by Titus Kaphar.

“In the absence of adequate facts, our hearts rifle through memories, foraging satisfactory fictions.”

Read the entire interview with Kaphar HERE.

posted May 5th, 2017 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Art,Hercules,Kaphar, Titus,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Washington, George

next page

   Copyright © 2017 In the Words of Women.