Examining the faces of emancipation


(CBS News) Exactly 150 years ago from Tuesday, in a nation torn by civil war, President Abraham Lincoln declared slaves in rebel states to be "forever free," but the Emancipation Proclamation did not end the war.

It did, however free African-Americans to see themselves in a new light.

Many of the images have never been seen by the public. Taken between 1860 and 1880, they show newly-freed blacks in elegant dress, looking poised and confident. History professor Barbara Krauthamer has studied them for more than 10 years.

Krauthamer said: "After 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation, the pictures were a way of reaffirming that freedom and the sense of dignity that accompanied freedom."

More than a thousand of the photos were discovered in archives and libraries across the country, like the Schomburg Research Center in Harlem. The center has put a dozen of them on display to mark the proclamation's anniversary. The photographs are also part of a new book co-written by Krauthamer called "Envisioning Emancipation."

"I think the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation gave every African-American person a sense of hope and inspiration," Krauthamer said.

That so many were in military uniform is not a coincidence.

"Look at them; they are so dignified. They are the epitome of manhood, of patriotism, of honor," Krauthamer said. "There was a sense they were fighting for their people and their nation."

In one family photograph, the various skin complexions of the children exposed one of slavery's most disturbing legacies.

"It was suppose to speak in part to the sexual abuse of enslaved women by their slave masters and by other slave-holding men in the South," Krauthamer said.

Nearly all of the pictures were taken by black photographers.

"For free black people in the 19th century in the United States, photography proved to be a powerful and important way of representing themselves as Americans, as intellectuals, as artist," Krauthamer said.

It is a view of freedom, put in focus by a lens.

  • Michelle Miller
    Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.