The 'White' Slave Children of New Orleans
Photos of these kids were sold to raise funds for black schools
It was perhaps the first great marketing campaign to benefit newly freed slaves. It was a simple premise: appeal to the hearts of anti-slavery whites by showing them photos of slave children that looked that them. The goal was to sell the images, mostly in the north, during the Reconstruction era and generate enough money to provide an education to freed black slaves.
The photos, which featured prominently Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, Rosina Downs and Augusta Broujey as the mixed race former slave children, sold for 25 cents each. From reports, the slave children and three black slaves came to the North and were photographed in various set ups. The images were mass-produced for a fundraising campaign following Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves in 1863.
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In the essay 'As White as Their Masters': Visualizing the Color Line, by Carol Goodman, we learn how the 19th century media latched on to the story of the white slave children:
On January 30, 1864, Harper’s Weekly printed an engraving of a photograph, entitled “Emancipated Slaves, White and Colored,” depicting three adults and five children who had been brought north from Louisiana by Colonel George H. Hanks and set free by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. The group made a series of public appearances and were photographed as part of a campaign to raise funds for public schools for freed slaves, the first of which was established by Major General Banks in October 1863. The hope was, writes Kathleen Collins in “Portraits of Slave Children,” that “these enigmatic portraits of Caucasian-featured children” would galvanize “Northern benefactors to contribute to the future of a race to which these children found themselves arbitrarily confined”. The “white slaves” depicted in the engraving were described by the editor of Harper’s as being “as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children”. “Yet,” he continued, “the ‘chivalry,’ the ‘gentlemen’ of the Slave States, by the awful logic of the system, doom them all to the fate of swine; and, so far as they can, the parents and brothers of these little ones destroy the light of humanity in their souls”. In comparing these unfortunate slave children to those of its subscribers, the magazine hoped to stir their emotions against a system so unconscionable that it doomed its own children to a life of unspeakable cruelty.
These photo cards touched the hearts of Northern Americans so much that the children became semi-celebrities, going on publicity tours. Their stories of enslavement helped further pull on the purse strings.
REBECCA HUGER is eleven years old, and was a slave in her father’s house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood. In the few months during which she has been at school she has learned to read well, and writes as neatly as most children of her age. Her mother and grandmother live in New Orleans, where they support themselves comfortably by their own labor. The grandmother, an intelligent mulatto, told Mr. Bacon that she had “raised” a large family of children, but these are all that are left to her.
ROSINA DOWNS is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair. Her father is in the rebel army. She has one sister as white as herself, and three brothers who are darker. Her mother, a bright mulatto, lives in New Orleans in a poor hut, and has hard work to support her family.
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CHARLES TAYLOR is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky. Three out of five boys in any school in New York are darker than he. Yet this white boy, with his mother, as he declares, has been twice sold as a slave. First by his father and “owner,” Alexander Wethers, of Lewis County, Virginia, to a slave-trader named Harrison, who sold them to Mr. Thornhill of New Orleans. This man fled at the approach of our army, and his slaves were liberated by General Butler. The boy is decidedly intelligent, and though he has been at school less than a year he reads and writes very well. His mother is a mulatto; she had one daughter sold into Texas before she herself left Virginia, and one son who, she supposes, is with his father in Virginia.
AUGUSTA BROUJEY is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children.
Ironically, Augusta was left off the northern tour because she was considered to dark to impress the audiences.
Little is known about the lives of the children after their popularity waned.