White slave propaganda

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A woodcut that appeared in Harper's Weekly on 30 January 1864 with the caption, "EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED."

Publicity, including photographs, novels, and popular lectures, about light-skinned slaves, was used during and prior to the American Civil War to further the abolitionist cause and to raise money for the education of former slaves. This practice is sometimes called white slave propaganda. The images included light-skinned slave children photographed alongside dark-skinned adult slaves.

Early publicity about white slave children[edit]

Sexual exploitation of slaves by their masters was common in the southern United States. Mixed-race slaves constituted about 10% of the 4 million slaves enumerated in the 1860 census. About 5% of slaves born in the Southern US are believed to have been fathered by white masters. An analysis of slave narratives shows that about one-third of women ex-slaves had a child with a white father, or had a white father themselves.[1] The plight of these mixed-race slaves, especially of the children, was often publicized as a way to further the abolitionist cause.

The character of Eliza in the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was a quadroon slave whose child also appeared to be "all-but-white".[2] Carol Goodman states that these literary "white slaves" only existed in the imagination of the readers, whereas later photographs made the character real.[3]

Nonfiction accounts written by escaped light-skinned slaves include those of Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (coauthored with her husband William) and Harriet Ann Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl[4][5] The authors of these works often appeared on the abolitionist lecture circuit.[6]

The Crafts and other abolitionists publicized the history of Salomé Müller, a German immigrant orphaned as an infant soon after arrival in New Orleans. Though Muller (later known as Sally Miller) was completely of European descent, she had been enslaved since infancy. The threat of white girls being seized and thrown into slavery prompted Parker Pillsbury to write to William Lloyd Garrison: "A white skin is no security whatsoever. I should no more dare to send white children out to play alone, especially at night... than I should dare send them into a forest of tigers and hyenas."[7]

Another popular abolitionist novel of the time was Mary Hayden Pike's Ida May: a Story of Things Actual and Possible (1854). Mary Mildred Botts, a young white slave freed with the help of Senator Charles Sumner in 1855, was considered the real world embodiment of Ida May. Articles appeared in the Boston Telegraph and the New York Times on the girl and copies of her photograph were publicized.[8][9][10] Mary appeared on stage during speeches by Sumner and other abolitionists. On May 19 and 20, 1856 Sumner spoke in the Senate comparing Southern political positions to the sexual exploitation of slaves then taking place in the South. Two days later Sumner was beaten almost to death on the floor of the Senate in the Capitol by Representative Preston Brooks, in an act foreshadowing the Civil War.[10]

Fannie Lawrence was a young white slave freed in early 1863. She was adopted by Catherine S. Lawrence and baptized by Henry Ward Beecher at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Carte de visite photographs of her were sold to raise money for the abolitionist cause.[11]

Freed slaves from Louisiana[edit]

Three former slave children with books in their hands alongside a former African American slave

Ninety-five schools for freedmen, serving 9,500 students in Louisiana were active in areas controlled by the Union Army in 1863. Funding was needed to continue to run the schools. The National Freedman's Association, the American Missionary Association and Union officers launched a publicity campaign to raise money by selling carte de visite (CDV) photographs of eight former slaves, five children and three adults. The former slaves were accompanied on a tour of Philadelphia and New York by Colonel George H. Hanks. A woodcut, based on a photograph of the former slaves, appeared in Harper's Weekly in January 1864 with the caption "EMANCIPATED SLAVES, WHITE AND COLORED."[12]


The former slaves traveled from New Orleans to the North. Of these, four children appeared to be white or octoroon. According to the Harper's Weekly article, they were, "'perfectly white;' 'very fair;' 'of unmixed white race.' Their light complexions contrasted sharply with those of the three adults, Wilson, Mary, and Robert; and that of the fifth child, Isaac—'a black boy of eight years; but nonetheless [more] intelligent than his whiter companions.'"[12][13][14]

The group was accompanied by Colonel Hanks from the 18th Infantry Regiment, and posed for photos in New York City and in Philadelphia. The resulting images were produced in the carte de visite format and were sold for twenty-five cents each, with the profits of the sale being directed to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks back in Louisiana. On each of the photos, it was explained that the proceeds from the sale would be "devoted to the education of colored people".[12][13]


Of the many prints that were commissioned, at least twenty-two remain in existence today. Most of these were produced by Charles Paxson and Myron Kimball, who took the group photo that later appeared as a woodcut in Harper's Weekly. A portrait of Rebecca was taken by James E. McClees of Philadelphia.[12]

Modern analysis[edit]

Charley Taylor holding an American flag. Charley was the son of Alexander Withers and one of Withers's slaves. Withers sold Charley to a slave dealer and he was sold again in New Orleans.

Modern scholars have examined the White slave campaign's motives and success.

Mary Niall Mitchell in "Rosebloom and Pure White, Or So It Seemed,"[15] argues that because the slaves were depicted as being white through both their skin color and style of dress, this meant that the argument could be made that the war was independent of class status, something which was needed after the draft riots in New York City that year.

Carol Goodman in "Visualizing the Color Line," has argued that the photos stemmed from allusions of physical abuse, an argument which is strengthened when paired with the comments of the editor of the Harper's Weekly article when they said, that it permits slave-holding, "'gentlemen' [to] seduce the most friendless and defenseless of women." The specter of "white" girls being sold as "fancy girls" or concubines in southern slave markets may have caused northern families to fear for the safely of their own daughters. Similarly the idea that white slave-master fathers would sell their own children in slave markets raised northerners' concerns.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, in "Portraits of a People," has argued that the usage of props such as the American flag and books helps to not only make the photo relatable to Northern whites, but also show that the purpose of the photos are for education and the raising money for schools in Louisiana. She also noted that the use of "white" children to illustrate the damage done to mostly "black" slaves shows the racism in both southern and northern societies.[12]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries". University Library System. University of Pittsburgh. 2009. Retrieved July 7, 2016. 
  2. ^ Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1852). Uncle Tom's Cabin. p. 20. Retrieved July 5, 2016.  See, in particular, Chapter II
  3. ^ Goodman, Carol. ""As White As Their Masters": Visualizing the Color Line". mirrorofrace.org. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  4. ^ Craft, William and Ellen (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. p. 63. Retrieved July 6, 2016. 
  5. ^ Jacobs, Harriet Ann (1861). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 
  6. ^ Barbara McCaskill, "William and Ellen Craft", New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2010, accessed July 6, 2016
  7. ^ Carol Wilson, "Sally Muller, the White Slave", Louisiana History, Vol. 40, 1999, accessed July 7, 2016
  8. ^ "A White Slave from Virginia.". New York Times. March 9, 1855. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  9. ^ Gage, Joan. "A White Slave Girl "Mulatto Raised by Charles Sumner"". Mirror of Race. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Morgan-Owens, Jessie (February 19, 2015). "Poster Child: There's Something About Mary". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved July 6, 2016. 
  11. ^ Brown, Tanya Ballard (December 10, 2012). "A Black And White 1860s Fundraiser". NPR. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Caust-Ellenbogen, Celia. "White Slaves". Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  13. ^ a b "'White' slave children of New Orleans". New York Daily News. 21 September 2012. Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  14. ^ "The 'white' slave children of New Orleans: Images of pale mixed-race slaves used to drum up sympathy among wealthy donors in 1860s". 27 February 2012. London: Daily Mail. 28 February 2012. Retrieved 31 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Mitchell, Mary Niall. "'Rosebloom and Pure White,' Or So It Seemed". ScholarWorks@UNO. University of New Orleans. Retrieved June 29, 2016.  also published in American Quarterly 54:3 (September 2002): 369-410

Further reading

External links[edit]