Joseph Mason and “Frank”: Two Enslaved Teens Freed in Washington, DC

E. D. Etchison's handwritten petition seeking compensation for two freed slaves.

On April 16, 1862, an Act of Congress freed every slave in the District of Columbia.  The law, coming a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, was the first direct blow to slaveholding, preceding the Emancipation Proclamation by several months.  At last, the federal government had moved to end the shameful practice of slavery, which until this date had been legal in the nation’s capital.

The DC measure laid out a model of emancipation differing from what transpired in the theater of war.  Emancipation in the District was a legal process, whereby slaveholders explicitly renounced their claims to the lifetime labor of slaves whom they had purchased.  The owners received a compensation of $300 per slave, while the former slaves received documentation establishing their free state.  Did the explicit nature of this process mitigate the anger and resentment that welled up in slaveholders when their “property” became free?  The legal process acknowledged the slaveholders’ monetary loss, even as it ended the practice of slaveholding, recasting it as the immoral, exploitive, and disgraceful thing that it was.

The legislation gave slaveholders an incentive to record the stories of every slave they owned.  The law required them to present petitions, which detailed the appearance, history, and occupations of each slave and the transactions that brought them to Washington DC.  Such documents supply unusually vivid pen-portraits of the some 3,100 blacks who obtained their freedom in Washington City.

For example, the claim papers of one DC resident, dry-goods merchant Emanuel Dorsey Etchison, sought compensation for two teenage slaves who were now legally free.  Etchison describes having purchased a claim to the labor and services of the two for life, when he acquired “Joseph Mason” from R. H. Harrison of Baltimore for $825 on April 6, 1861.  Etchison likewise acquired “Frank” [no last name] from J. Hill of Baltimore for $750 on 30 March 1861.

Frank was 17 and Joseph, 15, when they were freed.  Etchison averred that since their purchase, the value of the two young laborers had appreciated.  He put the value of the labor of Frank at one thousand dollars, Frank being “a valued and experienced hotel servant without any defect or infirmity.”  Joseph Mason’s value had also increased to the same amount, “he being a trusty and faithful office servant, without any infirmity or defect.”

The 17-year-old Frank was described as being of “dark copper color, five feet high, with a high forehead, snow white teeth, . . . free and polite in conversation, and perfectly healthy.”  Joseph Mason, at 15 years old, was “four feet five inches high and strongly built for his age” but “with a rather grum countenance when spoken to” and a small scar running lengthwise “barely perceptible” above his left brow.  The tone of Etchison’s claim is not unlike what I imagine an effective slave trader’s would be.  The boys are presented as healthy, good workers and therefore valuable, but Etchison’s banal way of describing them points up their unnatural condition and the inevitably traumatic transactions that led to each boy’s separation from family and home.

What happened to these two youths, ripped from their roots, then suddenly freed on the verge of adulthood?  The poignance of Etchison’s pen-portrait comes from its limited scope. It’s a snapshot of  Joseph and Frank with scarcely a clue to their pasts and nothing of what became of them afterwards.  This fragment conveys the awful transience, isolation, and insecurity intrinsic to chattel slavery.

Whereas Frank and Joseph’s former master got paid when they were liberated, they received no compensation for the value of the labor that they had been obliged to give to Etchison and others.  The irreparable harm every slave suffered by virtue of being enslaved was never counted as a loss. The Congress viewed slaves as benefiting from the gift of liberty, but never were slaves frankly compensated for what the condition of lifelong bondage had taken from them.

The meager terms of emancipation were, in that sense, a perverse confirmation of slaves’ worthlessness, a fresh instance of white America’s incapacity to see freedmen as anything but a pitiable and inferior class.  When it is said that the slaves received “nothing but freedom,” every hearer must admit that freedom makes a light dinner, a hard bed, and scant shelter from a storm.

Image: screenshot from this source,
Washington DC, US Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-63
available through subscription on Ancestry.com.

RELATED:
Damani Davis, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation’s Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors.”  Prologue 2010.

 

Two Gilded Age Gentlemen

Two dressed-up men smile into the camera on a spring day. One holds a Kodak camera.
Two men in high silk hats breathe the style of the times.  The year is 1889.  They are old enough to remember the century’s watershed event, the Civil War, which is long in the past, it being more than two decades since Appomattox.  These gentlemen, and millions of others, have moved on.  They are Gilded Age creatures, inhabitants of a rapidly modernizing society enjoying ever-increasing wealth.  Their era was empty of historical grandeur: in that respect, the 1880s, with their intense but under-examined social problems (including widening economic inequality), were somewhat similar to today.

Formally attired, but looking like they are often so, the two men smile into the camera of Uriah Hunt Painter.  Painter and the man on the left may be engaged in a mutual photo-shoot, for each has a Kodak camera, a new invention that became the era’s most fashionable ‘toy.’  This picture captures how people had begun to use it—not too differently from how people use their cell phones now.

The sun is shining on this Easter Monday, as all Washington gathers for the first-ever Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn.  The watch-chain of one man snakes along the surface of his taut belly, a symbol of the symbiosis between efficiency and attaining plenty.  He and his friend both sport the flamboyant facial hair that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age—the vast mustaches and expansive mutton-chops that would prevail even it Teddy Roosevelt’s time, the mutton chops first popularized by General Burnside, and eventually leading to the coinage of the enduring term, ‘sideburns.’

Image from this source.

Girl with a Kodak on a Winter’s Day

A girl holding a Kodak camera and standing in a snowy Washington DC smiles for an unknown photographer.

George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear.  He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC.  Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.

Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed.  It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore.  Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery.  Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting.  Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.

Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too.  He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made.  “You press the button—we do the rest.”  With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium.  He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.

Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888.  It was lightweight, small, and easy to work.  Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions).  Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing.  The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.

The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved.  It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography.   The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body.  The wind lifts her coat hem.  Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century.  In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.

Image from this source.

A serious problem for patriots

Flag flying above House of Representatives, Jan 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Men holding a wind-ripped flag taken down from atop the US House of Representatives.
Photograph by Harris & Ewing, January 16, 1917.

Image from this source.

Hello, February

Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be.  I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.

Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode.  Continue reading