A Daguerreotype Lens to the Past – Through Courageous Eyes

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Today’s post for the Through Courageous Eyes series showcases the photographs of Augustus Washington. Most of our posts are about migrants to the United States, but today I share the story of a free-born black American who migrated to Liberia as part of the back-to-Africa movement in the 19th century. Along with teaching, farming, and later serving in the Liberian government, he practiced photography, using an early process popularized in the 1840s called daguerreotype.

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series features migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.

Augustus Washington was an African-American daguerreotypist in the nineteenth century. He was born free in Trenton, New Jersey in 1820 or 1821. His father had been a slave in Virginia and according to a letter he wrote about his early life, his mother was a native of South Asia.

Jane Roberts, wife of Wife of President of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Taken between 1851 and 1860.
Jane Roberts, wife of  the President of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, taken between 1851 and 1860

His career in photography began during his first year at Dartmouth College, where he learned to take daguerreotypes to help pay for his studies. Unfortunately, he still could not afford college and in 1844 he left for Hartford, CT. There he taught at a school for black students and began a photography business. Portraits were offered for $0.50 to $10, and advertised as “uncommonly cheap” in a newspaper ad.

 

Washington's first advertisement in The Hartford Daily Courant, October 8, 1852
Washington’s first advertisement in The Hartford Daily Courant, October 8, 1852

The passing of the Fugitive Slave Law and Compromise of 1850 made life uncertain, as even free blacks could be claimed as runaway slaves. Washington’s belief that emancipation alone would not solve the problems of racism in America led him to consider relocating to the newly independent Republic of Liberia. In November of 1853, therefore, Washington set sail for West Africa with his wife and children.

Edward J Roye, senator and later the fifth president of Liberia. Taken between 1856 and 1860.
Edward J Roye, senator and later the fifth president of Liberia, taken between 1856 and 1860

In Liberia, Washington became a farmer with a large sugar cane plantation, but continued to take daguerreotypes. During the rainy seasons he often traveled to The Gambia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone to generate income with photos. He became involved in politics and was elected to the House of Representatives and later the Senate.

As a prominent member of society, much is known about his life from records in the African Repository, a journal of the organization that founded Liberia. His death in 1875 was described in the publication as

a calamitous event for his family and a severe loss to Western Africa generally.

Of the surviving daguerreotypes, many subjects are of politicians who were prominent in the Liberian government including senators, presidents, and their wives. For more examples of his work, see The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room or The National Portrait Gallery.

An unidentified woman, probably in the Urias McGill family. Taken 1855.
An unidentified woman, probably in the Urias McGill family, taken 1855

Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at cpessoa@lirs.org.

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

Sources: The Smithsonian Magazine, The National Portrait Gallery, ConnecticutHistory.org, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room

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