Free Black North

Unknown photographer
Art Gallery of Ontario

“The servant girl can now see a likeness of herself, such as noble ladies could not purchase 50 years ago. But now ... such pictures are placed within easy reach of the humblest members of society.”
— Frederick Douglass, 1863

Free Black North features photographs of men, women, and children living in Ontario in the mid to late 1800s, descendants of Black refugees who escaped enslavement in the southern United States. These portraits, drawn from collections at Brock University and the Archives of Ontario, many shown here for the first time, reveal how these chiefly unknown individuals presented themselves with style, dignity, and self-assurance. This exhibition highlights how historic Black Canadian communities utilized photography as an important tool to visualize and lay claim to their complex histories.

The photographs featured reflect the medium’s historical development and include rare tintypes, cartes de visite, and cabinet cards. These precious objects offer a critical opportunity to consider how Black individuals used photography to assert their presence in small Canadian communities in border towns and inland. Asserting and self-fashioning a presence was imperative given the pervasive racialized environment of Upper Canada in the mid-19th century. Racist caricatures in the form of illustrations, print ephemera, and in advertising circulated widely. The compelling photographic artifacts in Free Black North undermine such damaging representations by depicting the self-possession and agency of individuals, some of whom were only ten or 15 years removed from enslavement.

From the 1850s onward, itinerant photographers and those who owned local studios photographed countless Black subjects in southern Ontario. A range of local personalities and anonymous private citizens sat for portraits from which detailed constructed images of respectability were produced. Reverend Horace Hawkins (Westlake Brothers, 1871 – 1880) is featured in a cabinet card. Hawkins was enslaved in Kentucky, escaped to Canada, and settled in Amherstburg, Ontario. He eventually bought his freedom and became a well-known advocate for the abolition of slavery. Pictured in the trim attire associated with his pastoral duties, his pose is both commanding yet informal.

Unlike Reverend Hawkins, we know precious little about the unidentified woman featured in a tintype from the Richard Bell Collection (Unknown, 1870 – 1880). She wears a distinctive white pinafore, which may designate her status as a domestic worker. Staring resolutely at the camera, her pose suggests complete ease with the photographic process. The words of African-American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass are prescient: they confirm the democratization of photography with this portrait of a “servant girl” who used the medium to shape the way she wished to be seen.

While many of the images defy easy readings, they highlight how a visit to the photography studio played a critical role in asserting one’s identity in 19th-century Black diasporic communities. Collectively, they illuminate a tradition of early Black photography and how it contributes to broader narratives about the medium’s history in Canada.

Curated by Julie Crooks
Read More