Pictures of a free man

Augustus Washington's ambition and intellectual curiosity knew no bounds. His daguerrotypes, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, open a door to a remarkable history of one 19-century African-American.

October 12, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ann Shumard knocks you over with her enthusiasm. There's always one more tidbit to add, another slip of information to get hold of and catalog.

"Maybe I'm obsessive, but I made files for each letter, each item," she says.

She has more than 250 files, all dedicated to a free black man, a polymath of the 19th century. He was a journalist, politician, farmer and photographer. He left no image of himself, only the record of his life.

Augustus Washington wasn't the only black daguerreotypist of his time. What set him apart is the body of identifiable work he made in America and Liberia. Had John Brown, the messianic abolitionist, not walked into his Hartford, Conn., daguerreotype shop in 1847, Washington might have disappeared into history. Instead, he is the subject of "A Durable Memento," now on display at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

"I'm so glad this show is not up in African-American History Month. I would rather not have it put in that pigeonhole," says Shumard, the exhibit's curator. "I know I'm going to sound like a preacher, but this is not just African-American history, this is American history."

Shumard spent more than a year tracking down this history. She traveled to New Jersey and Connecticut, read microfilm until her eyes gave out, called researchers and pored over census records and city directories. In the end she had a story Washington's descendants did not know.

"Except that he was my great-grandfather, I didn't know much about him," says Armena Cooper-Hines, who lives in Germantown. "In Liberia he had been a senator, but in Liberia we don't keep too many records of what people did in history."

Washington probably wouldn't make it into anyone's book of Great Men. He didn't lead revolutions or write books. Yet he made himself a success when barriers were everywhere he turned. He believed in the 19th-century American concept of "an aristocracy of achievement, rather than an aristocracy of family," says Shumard.

Born to free parents in 1820 or 1821, he was the son of Christian Washington, who owned an oyster saloon near the state Capitol in Trenton, N.J. He grew up at ease with whites, went to their private schools. He fed his hungry mind with abolitionist newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator and Benjamin Lundy's Genius of Universal Emancipation.

By the 1830s, America's racial anxieties flared up and closed doors once open to him. Schools that accepted him as a child turned him away. Undeterred, he taught himself.

"He talks in his early life about his desire to be a scholar and a useful man," says Shumard.

By the time he was 15 or 16, he led a small school for blacks in Trenton. Friends in abolitionist circles helped him get into the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, N.Y., where he stayed until debts forced him out. His next stop was Brooklyn. He ran the African Public School, wrote for the weekly Colored American and tried to get unrestricted voting rights for New York's black citizens.

Barely out of his teens, he had already become a useful man. But he was not satisfied. He wanted more knowledge. The American Education Society refused to help him get into Dartmouth College. So, he went to his abolitionist friends. They helped him attend Kimball Union Academy and, in the fall of 1843, Dartmouth.

A new beginning

He lasted one semester. Again, he ran out of money. This time no one, not even his parents, could help. Over the winter break, he bought a daguerreotype camera and started taking pictures. He didn't know then, but the camera would forever change his life.

Daguerreotypes were perhaps the amazing invention of their time. Invented by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s, they brought photography into the world. Itinerant daguerreotypists lugged their cameras across the country and painted pictures with the light. The photos were made by exposing a copper plate covered with a light-sensitive silver halide for several seconds, then washing the plate with mercury.

No longer did people need a top-notch, high-priced portrait artist. You could buy a daguerreotype for 50 cents. Washington cashed in on the craze. Still, he ended his freshman year $120 in debt.

He picked up a teaching job in Hartford, leaving behind his equipment and a library of 150 books. He wanted to return to Dartmouth, believed he would return. Two years later, he was still in Hartford, now placing newspaper ads touting "A cheap and beautiful Christmas present. A durable memento."

The photographs catch their subjects in stiff, often tight-lipped poses. John Brown's steely eyes hold you in a grim, stern gaze. Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, founder of Aetna Life Insurance, seems to be holding his breath. His son, Charles, who would later die in the Civil War, looks as though he is willing himself to sit still.

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