October 3, 2011

A Glimpse of the Nearly Invisible

Location: Bainbridge, Conoy, PA 17502, USA
1) Emma Smith 2) Maggie J. Wiley 3) Mary Johnson
CDV by B. Frank Saylor, late 1860s
Ebay item #200656604669 ($137.50)
Of the thousands of photographs taken by Lancaster photographers before 1870 that I have viewed prior to this week, I can only recall one that had an African American as its subject.  In terms of primary sources, especially photography, Lancaster's African-American community is largely invisible. 

This is unfortunate, as perhaps the most important legacy of the Civil War was its associated upheaval in race relations--both locally and nationally.  The men of the 79th Pennsylvania and the people of Lancaster County were forced to confront the ideas of blacks as soldiers and citizens.  Some led the charge for change; others bitterly resisted.  Lancaster's Democratic Party seemed to go "all-in" on a bet against racial equality, and the issues of race and Civil War memory became intertwined during the second half of the 1860s.  For example, from the July 26, 1865, Intelligencer,
We also had a call on Friday last, from another old friend, Mr. John Conner, who after having gallantly served for over three years and a half in the 79th re-enlisted last Spring in the same regiment and served to the close of the war.  He is the same enthusiastic Democrat as ever, and has a holy horror and contempt for the men who wish to confer the elective franchise upon the negro, and make him the equal of the white man.
Howard (?) and Emma Smith
CDV by B. Frank Saylor, June 1868
Ebay item #190580938563 ($293.00)
So, two remarkable photographs appeared on Ebay this week of a young African-American nanny with white children, dated to the Lancaster photographers in the late 1860s.  One of the identified children, Margaret Wiley, comes from a family who appears to have lived around Bainbridge, a small town on the Susquehanna River near Marietta.  I do recall seeing newspaper reports of largely attended "Colored Camp Meetings" in woods near Marietta, so it wouldn't surprise me if there was a sizable African-American community there.  Here's some genealogical information from Donegal Presbyterian Church records

(Also, if you want a 79th Pennsylvania connection, Margaret Wiley's aunt is recorded to have donated goods to the Patriot Daughters of Lancaster in November 1861 that were shipped to the 79th Pennsylvania.  From the November 15, 1861, donation roll published in the Express: "Miss Mary Wiley, of Bainbridge, lot of dried fruit.")

I don't really know what to infer from these pictures about the relationship between the nannies and the families who employed them, but it is very interesting that they chose to include the women in the pictures (and even have the photos touched up with color).  Whether it shows an affectionate relationship between the families and Emma Smith or it shows household help as some sort of status symbol, it's a rare glimpse into race relations and and the world of domestic help in the 1860s.     

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