Ever looked at an old document or photograph and wonder “what’s the story here?” That’s exactly what we endeavor to find out at NURFC!
Take the photograph seen here. It’s from a collection of cabinet cards (e.g., carte-de-visite, shareable photographs from the 19th Century) produced in the photographic studio of James Presley (J.P.) Ball, a “free man of color,” located on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati in the mid-1800s, mere blocks from where the Freedom Center stands today. Ball was a very famous daguerreotype artist, and photographed such luminaries as P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria.
Even with our knowledge of Ball, we are left to wonder about the subjects of this photograph. Are they brother and sisters? A mother, father, and daughter? Was the decision to use an African-American photographer a purposeful stand against the enslavement and oppression of African-Americans? Or was it simply a decision to go to the most famous photographer available to document their family life, a document for which they scrimped and saved, and probably never imagined would one day be collected by a museum?
At NURFC, it is our mission “to reveal the stories of freedom’s heroes,” and finding a photograph like this in the collection prompts questions about whether the subjects of the photographs were freedom’s heroes. I would argue that Ball himself was one – he braved the borderlands to set up shop in a highly visible profession, and photographed black and white Americans alike. Though born free, he did not live in a free state (he was born in Virginia), until he set up a studio in Philadelphia; but, even then, he returned to Virginia to work, right across from the state capitol, and likely harbored at least a little worry for his freedom. He may not have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad, but he was certainly a pioneer in the photographic arts, and deserves to be celebrated.
- Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice