“The Journey of a Slave” Anticipates Interpretation of 2010

From Harrison, NPS:

Sometime during or shortly after the Civil War, a Northern publisher issued a remarkable set of chromolithographed cards, somewhat in the style of cigarette cards.  Those numbered at least a dozen and bore the collective designation, “The Journey of a Slave.”  The publisher also gave the illustrations individual titles and numbers.  The following copy of the Journey of a Slave series now resides at the Library of Congress, which tentatively attributes the work to Philadelphia artist James F. Queen:

Journey of a Slave is a remarkable piece of public history and art.

For one, it clearly reflects a commercial undertaking and shows that, for at least some entrepreneurs, slavery was a story to be publicized rather than forgotten or suppressed.  True, the illustrations may have been aimed at or found their strongest market among African American consumers in the North, but the subject of slavery was certainly in this case publicized thorough a mass-produced, dynamic (even lurid, given the blood spurts in “The Lash,” “Make Way for Liberty,” and “Victory”), easily accessible product.         

While the series is generalized geographically and not set specifically in the Fredericksburg area—as attested by the prominence of cotton cultivation in the first illustration—the long story of Fredericksburg’s presentation of its slave block, or “slave rock,” provides a local, similar example of the early publicizing of slavery in a commercialized or semi-commercialized manner…after the Civil War, in the case of the slave block.  Whether specific to the Fredericksburg area or not, such efforts provide a useful counterweight to the emphasis, in a number of today’s memory studies of the war and its causes, on amnesia over slavery and the black experience.  “Memory” is not invariably about forgetting, among people of all backgrounds.

Another notable aspect of the Journey of a Slave series is its anticipation of the efforts of the Fredericksburg community and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park to tell the story of slavery and freedom.  The illustration series is of course a product of the mid-nineteenth century, not the late-twentieth and its focus on African American agency, initiative, and independence.  Until the closing moments of “Glory,” for example, the soldier and former slave, Trip, played by Denzel Washington, has little use for the flag, in contrast to the “Stand Up a Man” illustration in the Journey of A Slave.  Nevertheless, the central character in the Journey of a Slave does take control of his life dramatically, in the course of transitioning from slave to freedman to soldier.  Overall, the series reflects facets that would a century or more later become central to Park Service historical interpretation:  work, family formation, suffering, resilience, resistance, freedom, military service, sacrifice, and commemoration.

Noel G. Harrison

[Editor: For an example of how some of the components of “Journey of a Slave” are finding expression hereabouts, check out a new posting by Noel over at Mysteries and Conundrums on the efforts to document and describe the first clash of African American troops in Virginia north of the James River.  It happened in our midst.]

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