African American Resources
at the American Antiquarian Society
African Americans, both enslaved and free, have been an integral part of America's history since shortly after colonization. However, only relatively recently have scholars begun to work on a large scale to assess the countless contributions African Americans have made to American history, culture, and life. As Frederick Douglass explained to those proposing that African Americans "return" to Africa when freed: "For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver's lash—plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the waters of genial toil . . . . We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here."
The American Antiquarian Society has rich materials pertaining to the African American experience through Reconstruction as well as much relating to white attitudes towards slavery and black Americans in those periods. The strength of the collections is due to collecting efforts that began when the Society was founded in 1812, and today we continue to collect actively in this area. This web page offers a small sampling from the AAS collections and we hope it will give a sense of the range of the resources here for the study of African American history.
Over the past two centuries the American Antiquarian Society has built impressive book and pamphlet collections documenting the pre-1877 African American experience, and we continue to acquire appropriate materials as opportunities arise. Relevant items can be found in most of the collections in which the Society's books and pamphlets have been organized. Although the great majority concern the debate over slavery, abolitionism, the political crisis leading to the Civil War, the military conflict, and its immediate aftermath, there is much at AAS written by or about free blacks. Following is a select sampling of some of the lesser-known rarities:
Phillis Wheatley. Liberty and Peace, a Poem. Boston: Warden and Russell, 1784. [catalog record]
AAS holds a virtually complete collection of Phillis Wheatley's works, including all but one of the ephemeral pieces published during her time in Boston. Liberty and Peace (Boston, 1784), a four-page poem marking the successful conclusion of the American Revolution, was the last work issued during Wheatley's lifetime.
Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 ... Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1794. [catalog record]
By the late 18th century Philadelphia was home to a large and thriving community of free blacks. Its leaders were Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, former slaves who occupied the pulpits of the community's two churches. During the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, when terrified whites pleaded for help from blacks (who were wrongly believed to be immune), Jones and Allen were two of many who courageously did what they could to tend the sick and bury the dead. Accused by some of profiteering, Jones and Allen defended their brethren in the Narrative.
Robert Roberts. The House Servant's Directory, or a Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants' Work ... Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1827. [catalog record]
A highlight of AAS's superlative collection of cookbooks and household manuals is Robert Roberts' The House Servant's Directory, or A Monitor for Private Families ... (Boston, 1827). Born in Charleston, SC in 1780, Roberts moved to Boston, where in 1825 he took a position as butler to former U.S. senator and Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore. Two years later his comprehensive guide to household management was published to great acclaim, and it remains in print today.
Thomas Smallwood. Narrative of Thomas Smallwood, (Coloured Man:) Giving an Account of His Birth, the Period He was Held in Slavery, his Release, and Removal to Canada, Together with an Account of the Underground Railroad. Toronto: James Stephens, 1851. [catalog record]
Thomas Smallwood's self-published memoir was the first slave narrative published in Canada (following a plagiarization of David Walker's Appeal issued earlier that year in Hamilton). Born into slavery in Maryland in 1801 and freed at the age of 30, Smallwood here recounts his experiences with the underground railroad, spiriting slaves from Washington, DC through Maryland to freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line. He also offers a valuable perspective on the life of fugitive slaves in Canada, as well as trenchant observations on the abolitionist and African colonization movements.
Les Cenelles: Choix de Poésies Indigènes. New Orleans: H. Lauve & Co., 1845. [catalog record]
Antebellum New Orleans housed a large community of free blacks and creoles which chafed under many restrictions. One was a ban on publication, which was tested during the 1840's by the educator and poet Armand Lanusse. Having started a literary journal in 1843, Lanusse followed it in 1845 by editing the first anthology of African American verse to be published in the United States. Its 85 poems, entirely in French, were contributed by 17 black Louisiana poets. The publication ban remained in place, however, and some contributors emigrated to France in order to pursue their literary careers.
"Barbarity Committed on a free African," engraved illustration from Jesse Torrey. A Portraiture of the Domestic Slavery in the United States (Philadelphia: Jesse Torrey, 1817). [catalog record]
Torrey was a physician whose book describes various aspects of slavery including the possibility of creating a colony for "free persons of color." The engraving shown here depicts a free black being fatally assaulted a few miles north of Washington, DC by two intoxicated ruffians. After the initial assault, they tied him behind one of their horses and left him by the side of the road, where he was discovered the next day. This is just one of many tragic stories recounted by Torrey.
Charles C. Green. The Nubian Slave. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1845.
Green was an active abolitionist in Boston in the 1840s. He illustrated his poem with stark outline drawings of slavery in Egypt and America that served as inspiration for a panorama on the life of Henry Box Brown, who escaped from slavery hidden in a large crate. Green advertised his poem in the Liberator, and it received high praise when separately published in 1845. Bela Marsh issued many slave narratives and books on spiritualism, and he was generally supportive of abolitionist causes. The firm of Fitz Henry Lane and John White Allen Scott reproduced Green's drawings lithographically. "Freedom" shows the idyllic state of an African couple with a young son prior to being enslaved in Africa, sent to America, and separated.
The Children's Literature Collection has about 300 titles published between 1800 and 1900 containing depictions of African-Americans. The largest subset consists of works about slavery, including extremely rare imprints issued by the Cincinnati-based abolitionist group, the American Reform Tract and Book Society; the juvenile periodical The Slave's Friend (1836-1839); and pro-slavery titles like the picture book Little Eva, the Flower of the South (ca. 1853). AAS also has holdings of visually rich Reconstruction-era picture books that document racial stereotypes in the popular culture of the time, such as the counting rhyme Ten Little Mulligan Guards (ca. 1874), and the picture book Topsy (ca. 1894). Perhaps the most striking and poignant of these nineteenth-century children's books are those that offer brief glimpses into the lives of free African-American children, such as Susan Paul's Memoir of James Jackson, the Attentive and Obedient Scholar (1835), and the short story William Saunders or Blessings in Disguise (1848), about an African-American boy's struggle to confront the prejudice shown him by white boys on the streets of Boston. With their simple text and, in many cases, stunning visuals, these books offer riveting insight into the meanings of race, equality, and citizenship circulating in nineteenth-century America.
Thatcher, Benjamin Bussey. Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a North African and a Slave. Boston: George W. Light; New York: Moore and Payne, and Leavitt, Lord and Co., 1834. [catalog record]
Benjamin Bussey Thatcher (1809-1840) was a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and abolitionist. He launched a series of biographies of prominent African-Americans for children with this biography of famed poetess Phillis Wheatley. Its publisher George W. Light (1809-1868) was clearly interested in social reform; he also published physician William Alcott's The House I Live In, a pathbreaking children's book about human biology. This fine portrait of Phillis Wheatley composing at her desk was produced by the prolific Boston lithographer John B. Pendleton (1798-1866).
Townsend, Hannah and Mary. The Anti-Slavery Alphabet. Philadelphia: Printed for the Anti-Slavery Fair, 1846. [catalog record]
Hannah Townsend (b. 1812) and her sister Mary (b. 1814) wrote this children's alphabet rhyme to promote the anti-slavery clause among the young, and also to produce an attractive item that could be sold at one of the many anti-slavery fairs held during the 1840s. Each brightly-colored letter represents a poignant image in the slave system: "A is an abolitionist," "B is a brother with a skin of somewhat darker hue," "C is the cotton-field, to which This injured brother is driven." Although the Townsend sisters' names did not appear on the title page, they were identified as the authors in an issue of The Liberator, also held at AAS.
The Slave's Friend. New York: R.G. Williams for the American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836-1839. [catalog record]
The Slave's Friend was edited by reformer and philanthropist Lewis Tappan, and its publishing was underwritten by him and his brother Arthur. Published as chapbooks, the issues of The Slave's Friend contain stories, poems, and essays. Many of them concern the slaves' plight, but some also provide valuable witness to free black communities, such as the society of women that collected and donated $100 for the operation of the Philadelphia Shelter for Colored Orphans. The Slave's Friend is visually rich with many wood engravings portraying the evils of slavery and the hope of freedom. It ceased publication in 1839, after the Tappan brothers took a huge financial loss in the Panic of 1837.
Preston, Ann. Cousin Ann's Stories for Children. Philadelphia: J.M. McKim, 1849. [catalog record]
Ann Preston (1813-1872) eventually became a medical doctor, but she wrote this collection of children's stories and poetry while in her twenties. She was also a Quaker, and several of her pieces touch upon the evil of alcoholic drink and the immorality of slavery, including the stirring story of Henry Box Brown's escape from slavery in a box. Brown's box arrived by train in Philadelphia in April, 1849 — making Preston's story and its wonderful image of Brown emerging from his box among the earliest narratives of Brown's escape written for children.
Susan Paul. Memoir of James Jackson, the Attentive and Obedient Scholar. Boston: James Loring, 1835. [catalog record]
Susan Paul was James Jackson's teacher; she prefaces the biography of her young student who died at age 7 with the moving words, "The design of this memoir is to present the incidents in the life of a little colored boy ... Let ... this little book do something towards breaking down that unholy prejudice which exists against color." This biography offers a rare glimpse into the life of a free African-American child in Antebellum America. Paul's text ends with the haunting poem "Am I To Blame?" about the emotional damage done by racism.
Topsy. New York: McLoughlin Bros., ca. 1894-1914. [catalog record]
This chromolithographed shaped book was published by McLoughlin Bros., a leader in picture book production after the Civil War. It features poems and pictures about African-American children at work and play, including a stunning picture of African-American children racing horses through a town. One of the most telling images in Topsy is the illustration of a barefoot African-American girl serving fruit to a well-dressed white girl walking her dog; the image is simply titled, "Black and White."
The graphic arts collection contains many images of African-Americans from the eighteenth century through Reconstruction. Prints, photographs, and ephemera depicting African-Americans record daily life, abolition, slavery, and racial stereotypes. Portraits of free African-Americans, complex views of abolition and Emancipation, and images of slavery are all available in the diverse holdings of the department.
Cotton Mather. Rules for the Society of Negroes. 1693. Boston: probably Bartholomew Green, ca. 1714. [catalog record]
The content of this early broadside, which reprints the 1693 rules for the Society of Negroes in Boston, was written by New England divine Cotton Mather and concerns religious instruction for the African community. It is inscribed in manuscript on the verso by Boston judge Samuel Sewall, author of the anti-slavery text The Selling of Joseph (1700).
Portrait painting of John Moore, Jr., by William P. Codman, 1826.
The son of free blacks, John Moore, Jr. was born in Boston about 1800. He may have been a barber, for a John Moore was listed in the Boston city directory for 1827 in the "People of Color" section. Many African-Americans worked independently as barbers in cities. Moore became the legal guardian of two young nephews in 1831, but little else is known about his life. Descendants of the sitter donated this painting and a small collection of family manuscripts to AAS. Additional details are available in the fully illustrated inventory of the painted portraits, miniatures and sculpted portrait busts collections.
Theodor Kaufman. Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law. New York: Hoff & Bloede, 1850. [catalog record]
Kaufman (b. 1814) was a German immigrant who fled the aftermath of the German Revolution of 1848. Like many of the "Forty-Eighters," Kaufman became politically involved with American issues, including slavery. His print relating to the Fugitive Slave Law graphically depicts the violence of the era. Thomas Nast, who became an important political cartoonist, was one of Kaufman's students.
Game of Uncle Tom and Little Eva. Providence and New York: V. S. W. Parkhurst, 1852. [catalog record]
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) swept through America and entered into popular culture through stage adaptations, children's books, prints, and games. This card game features simple images depicting the novel's main characters. Cards are distributed to the players, who try to assemble the winning hand of Justice, Eva, and Uncle Tom.
Winslow Homer. The Baggage Train: Campaign Sketches. Boston: Louis Prang, 1863. [catalog record]
Winslow Homer, well known for his genre and seascape paintings, worked for several lithographers in Boston early in his career. During the Civil War, Homer worked as a "sketch artist" providing images for Harper's Weekly and Louis Prang. Prang published a group of six lithographs in 1863 after Homer's drawings titled Campaign Sketches. They are sympathetic views of military camp life and include images featuring African Americans.
Mathew Brady. Burying the Dead in the Battle-Field of Antietam. Brady's Album Gallery, No. 561. Washington: Alexander Gardner, 1862. [catalog record]
One of the duties of black soldiers in the Union Army was to bury the dead. This grim task was captured on film by Mathew Brady, a well-known Civil War photographer. Brady and his staff photographed scenery and camp life during several major Union campaigns including Antietam and Gettysburg.
The manuscript collections include a variety of items useful for understanding the African-American experience in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Rev. Greensbury Washington Offley, Accounts, 1847-1849. [catalog record]
Rev. Greensbury Washington Offley was born in Maryland in 1808 to a former slave who had been freed in her master's will. Offley began his schooling at the age of nineteen; in 1835 he moved to Hartford to study for the ministry. In 1847 Offley began working as an agent for the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Worcester, MA, raising funds for a church and a pastor. At the close of the Civil War, Offley became involved in fundraising for missionary efforts among the freedmen in the South. In 1867 he moved to New Bedford, where he died in 1896. Among the four volumes at AAS is one including accounts for Offley's expenses while traveling to raise funds for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Worcester, 1847-1849.
Benjamin Banneker, manuscript draft of Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of our Lord, 1792.
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), a farmer and astronomer, was the descendant of freed slaves. Largely self-taught and with a lifelong interest in mathematics, he assisted in the surveying of Washington, DC in 1791. This manuscript of Banneker's first almanac was given to AAS by its publisher, William Goddard of Baltimore.
Phillis Wheatley, "To the University of Cambridge," 1767.
R.H. Dickinson & Brother (Richmond, VA), Daybook, 1846-1849.
The Dickinson firm did a considerable business in slave trading, generally holding auctions on consignment for slave owners. This account book lists hundreds of sales of men, women and children. It was one of a number of slavery-related manuscripts collected by Worcester sisters Lucy and Sarah Chase, who traveled to the South during the Civil War to teach in freedmen's schools.
Brown Family Papers, 1762-1865. [catalog record]
This collection of manuscripts contains correspondence, documents, receipts, and miscellaneous material generated by members of an African-American family in Worcester, MA. The correspondence contains many letters (some written from Civil War camps) sent to William Brown (1824-1892), an upholsterer and carpet maker in Worcester. These letters are personal in nature, although there are several business letters as well. There are also several personal letters addressed to William Brown's wife, Martha A. Brown (d. 1889). The correspondence also contains many letters written to Emma B.G. Brown (1869?-1961), especially by her son, Lemuel F. Brown (1899-1932). Lemuel's letters were written while he served in France during World War I.
AAS has a small but significant collection of newspapers published by African-Americans. The first African-American newspaper appeared in 1827, and 35 had been started by 1862, all in the north. L'Union (New Orleans, 1862-1864) was the first African-American newspaper published in the south. After the Civil War ended, African-Americans established more newspapers across the country fairly quickly.
Nineteenth-century African-American newspapers are all very rare. Few copies were saved by institutions, and many are known by at most a handful of issues. In a bibliography published in 1950, out of 2,700 titles recorded, over 2,000 were listed as no copies known. AAS has 29 titles in its collection plus related reference works and bibliographies.
Freedom's Journal (New York) 1827-1829.
This was the first newspaper published by African-Americans in the United States. Ironically, it has survived more completely than almost any other early African-American newspaper. Publisher J .B. Russwurm started the newspaper to service the interests of the local African-American community, and to provide a voice opposing slavery. At that time some New York newspapers still promoted slavery, and Freedom's Journal was the first to counteract the vitriolic attacks on the local community. See Jacqueline Bacon's Freedom's Journal: the First African-American Newspaper (2007) for a history of the newspaper.
Pacific Appeal (San Francisco) 1862-1880.
The Elevator (San Francisco) 1865-1900.
The Pacific Appeal, the second African American newspaper to be published in California, was edited by Phillip A. Bell, who moved to San Francisco from New York, where he had worked on the Weekly Advocate. The newspaper described itself "as a reliable index of the doings of the colored citizens of the Pacific states and adjacent territories. Every important political, or other, movement made by the citizens of the Pacific coast, is promptly detailed by correspondents." Bell later worked for The Elevator of San Francisco which was published as an organ of the Executive Committee of the Colored Convention of California.
Colored American (Augusta, GA) 1865-1866.
L'Union/The Union (New Orleans, LA) 1862-1864.
La Tribune de la N. Orleans (New Orleans, LA) 1864-1869.
L'Union, a bilingual paper printed in French and English, was the first southern African-American newspaper. It was inaugurated as a weekly by Dr. Louis C. Roudanex and supported the Radical Republicans. The editor was Paul Trevigne, though Frank F. Barclay, a white man, was also listed. After its demise, it was revived in June 1864 as The Tribune. Four months later it switched frequency of publication and became the country's first daily African-American newspaper.
Self-Elevator (Boston, MA) 1853.
One of the earliest African-American newspapers published in Massachusetts, it was "Devoted to the subject of general elevation among the colored people of the country." The publisher was Benjamin F. Roberts.
North Star (Rochester, NY) 1847-1851.
Frederick Douglass' Paper (Rochester, NY) 1851-1860.
Douglass' Monthly (Rochester, NY) 1860-1863.
These newspapers, all published by Frederick Douglass, are the most famous African-American newspapers of the nineteenth century. Douglass used these newspapers not only to support the abolitionist movement, but also as advocates for other causes such as women's rights.
New National Era (Washington, DC) 1870-1874.
Frederick Douglass started this newspaper after the Civil War. In his autobiography he stated, "A misadventure though it was, which cost me from nine to ten thousand dollars, over it I have no tears to shed. The journal was valuable while it lasted, and the experiment was full of instruction to me, which has to some extent been heeded, for I have kept well out of newspaper undertakings since."
Le Bijou (Cincinnati, OH) 1878-1880.
This amateur newspaper was edited, printed, and published by Herbert A. Clark. Amateur journalism was a hobby especially popular with teenagers that took off after an inexpensive table-top printing press was patented in 1869. Issues were liberally exchanged with other amateur journalists around the country. The Bijou became so prominent and respected a publication that Clark was nominated for an office in the national association of amateur journalists.
African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography. [catalog record]
Black Biography, 1790-1950 Cumulative Index. Index arranged by place of birth, occupation, to the microfiche holdings of all titles. [catalog record]
Black Book Publishers in the United States: a Historical Dictionary of the Presses, 1817-1990. [catalog record]
Moebs, Thomas Truxtun. Black Soldiers, Black Sailors, Black Ink: Research Guide on African-Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900. [catalog record]
Newman, Richard. Black Access: a Bibliography of Afro-American Bibliographies. [catalog record]
Potter, Vilma Raskin. Reference Guide to Afro-American Publications and Editors, 1827-1946. [catalog record]
Salem, Dorothy C. African American Women: a Biographical Dictionary. [catalog record]