The boy and girl looked toward the camera. They were just old enough to understand the task assigned to them: to stand very still, with arms linked, and direct their gaze to the contraption in front of them. Isaac was eight and Rosa, six.
How two former slave children from Louisiana ended up in a Broadway photographer’s studio in 1863 requires some explanation. For now, it is enough to know that both children had been the property of slaveholders in New Orleans not long before their image was printed on cartes-de-visite (a new format for photography in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing for more than one copy, on individual cards, made cheaply) and offered for sale.
According to an article published in Harper’s Weekly on January 30, 1864, the biography of Isaac and Rosa is summarized as:
Isaac White is a black boy of eight years, but nonetheless intelligent than his whiter companions. He has been in school about seven months, and I venture to say that not one boy in fifty would have made as much improvement in that space of time.
Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with a 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.
The sale of their portrait would fund newly established schools for former slaves in southern Louisiana, a region already occupied by the Union army. In act, the Civil War still had its hold on the nation, with death tolls and discontent on the rise. The portrait of Isaac and Rosa, at once charming and provocative, said much about the uncertainties that hung in the air that year.
They would have made an uncommon pair, the black-skinned boy and the white-skinned girl. Although there were many racial taboos in nineteenth-century America, a white girl on the arm of a black boy was surely one of the most scandalous. That Rosa was a “colored” girl who only looked white – that she toyed with a person’s ability to see blackness at all – only made the pair of them more intriguing.
Isaac wore a suit with tie and collar, his cap in hand, and Rosa a dress and cape, full petticoats, and a fancy hat.
Despite their young ages, they stood to pose like a gentleman and lady making an entrance. But that was much the point of the photograph: to anticipate the adults they would become. The portrait “Isaac and Rosa, Emancipated Slave Children from the Free Schools of Louisiana,” was, above all, a picture about the future. Or rather, about the many futures that seemed possible in 1863.
Isaac and Rosa were emissaries of a message they only partly understood. Both children had been born into slavery in the South, freed by the Union army in 1863, and, with several other children and adults, taken on a tour in the North.
Three of the children, including Rosa, appeared to be white – a testament, their sponsors argue, to the brutal system of slavery that condoned the sexual exploitation of slaved women by white men and, in turn, produces children as fair-skinned as any “white” child. Through public appearances and the sale of photographs (so-called “white slave children photographs), the group’s sponsors proposed to raise money for the education of former slaves recently freed in the South.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people in Confederate-held territory. Although it did not free every enslaved person (some, within Union territory, remained enslaved while many others had already freed themselves by following Federal Troops), it made it clear that the abolition of slavery would be the result of the Civil War.
Since the proclamation’s signing, the war had become increasingly unpopular in the North. Moreover, the large urban working class dreaded the competition that might come from millions of freed blacks from the South who would work for low wages.
Many in the North looked warily at the prospect of immediate emancipation. At best, skeptics declared, former slaves would refuse to work or would move north en masse to escape the plantations, leaving the South’s cotton fields to lie fallow.
Few images could better foreshadow peaceful emancipation than Isaac and Rosa’s portrait. By some readings, their photograph was an assurance to northern viewers about the future after slavery. The image of neatly dressed “emancipated slave children” who were attending school, preserved in portraiture on photograph cards and posed like their white northern middle-class counterparts, presented education as the means to transform young former slaves into models of discipline and propriety.
Schooling children like Isaac and Rosa, guiding them by the light of northern “civilization,” would eradicate slavery’s effects, producing instead industrious young people with the desires of free-market consumers. From the looks of Isaac and Rosa, emancipation would be peaceful and prosperous for the nation.
Looking at Isaac and Rosa, some nineteenth-century viewers may have seen abolition’s triumph. Free people of color, in particular, had long begun to doubt the possibility of freedom and equality for people of African descent in the United States.
Among white northern viewers, the portrait of Isaac and Rosa might have raised more eyebrows than it did donations. If their youth and innocence pointed to slavery’s cruelties, Rosa’s pale skin brought slavery close to home for white northerners. Aimed at white viewers, it was a racial argument in visual terms, advocating slavery’s destructions.
Here was an institution that could enslave not just black children but children as light-skinned as Rosa. What, then, would keep rogue slaveholders from enslaving white people? Many northerners who had reached the South during the war had noted the large number of enslaved people who seemed to be “white”.
The black-skinned boy and white-skinned girl, both of whom were “colored”, raised questions about who was “white” and who was not, and how someone could (or could not) tell the difference. What Are the consequences of freeing racially ambiguous people like Rosa? Would emancipation encourage further “mixing” between races?
Carol Goodman, in “Visualizing the Color Line”, has argued that the photos alluded to physical and sexual abuse of the children’s mothers. When publishing the photo of the eight former slaves, the editor of Harper’s Weekly wrote that slavery 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 safety of their own daughters. Similarly, the idea that white slave-master fathers would sell their own children in slave markets raised Northerners’ concerns.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress / Article based on Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery by Mary Niall Mitchell).