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Library of Congress Digitizes 19th-Century Photos of Black Women Activists

The Library of Congress recently digitized rare 19th-century photographs of African American women active in suffrage, civil rights, temperance, education, reform, and journalism.

Educator and activist Elizabeth Brooks posing with singer and activist Emma Hackley (in spectacles) in five different portraits (1885) (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

While Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman may be among the most recognized 19th-century black women activists, a recent photography digitization project at the Library of Congress (LOC) spotlights some lesser-known figures. Images of women like Josephine A. Silone Yates, who studied chemistry and was one of the first black teachers at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and educator Fannie Barrier Williams, who advocated for black involvement in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, are among the rare photographs in the collection of William Henry Richards.

“William Henry Richards (1856-1941) was active in several organizations that promoted civil rights and civil liberties for African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century,” writes Beverly Brannan, curator of photography in the Prints and Photographs Division, in a post for LOC’s Picture This blog. The library acquired Richards’s collection in 2013, and Brannan states that, in “honor of women’s history month, Prints and Photographs Division staff digitized selected photographs from the collection showing women who were identified by name. These photographs show the women at earlier ages than most portraits previously available of them online.”

The late 19th-century portraits come from a post–Civil War period when rights and opportunities for African Americans, especially women, remained severely limited. The newly digitized cabinet cards and tintypes feature women who were active in everything from suffrage to temperance, such as writer Hallie Quinn Brown, who helped found the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC, which eventually became part of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (of which she served as president in the 1920s), and journalist Lillian Parker Thomas, who worked as an editor at the Freeman. Below are a few of their portraits, with more viewable online at the LOC.

Portrait of educator Laura A. Moore Westbook (1873), tinted tintype (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Portrait of journalist Lillian Parker Thomas, standing before studio backdrop, photographed by Giers & Koellein (Nashville, 1890), cabinet card (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Bust portrait of educator and civic leader, Maria “Molly” Baldwin, photographed by Elmer Chickering (Boston, 1885), cabinet card (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Hallie Quinn Brown, educator and activist (Ohio, 1875–88), cabinet card (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Josephine A. Silone Yates, educator and activist, seated before studio backdrop (Washington, DC, 1885), cabinet card (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Bust portrait of educator and activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, photographed by Paul Tralles (Washington, DC, 1885), cabinet card (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Portrait of educator Clarissa M. Thompson (1872), tintype (courtesy William Henry Richards Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
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