June 7: An Early Black Photographer’s Vision of Equality Changes Focus


When Augustus Washington arrived in Hartford soon after leaving Dartmouth College in the autumn of 1844, his path in life seemed clear. The son of a former slave and a mother of Asian descent, he had at an early age developed a hunger for knowledge  and a deep commitment to the abolition of slavery. Though still in his 20s, Washington had already conducted a school for black children in Trenton, New Jersey; taught at the African Public School in Brooklyn, New York; sought higher education at the progressive Oneida Institute and at Dartmouth; and served as a delegate to the Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the state of New York, held in Albany in 1840, to advance the cause of African American suffrage. His position in Hartford, teaching and directing the North African School of the Talcott Street Congregational church, placed him among like-minded people doing work to which he was deeply committed.

But Washington also had a unique skill acquired in his effort to pay for his Dartmouth tuition. During the winter of his first year, he had learned to make daguerrotypes, becoming  one of the nation’s first black photographers. Like Frederick Douglas, who thought the power of  photographs so important that he posed for 160 of them during his lifetime, Washington believed  images of blacks as responsible, respectable, upstanding community members could offset the minstrel show stereotypes of blacks familiar to many whites, and serve as powerful statements in the quest for equality.

This c. 1846-47 Augustus Washington daguerrotype of John Brown is the earliest image of the radical leader. The pose, with Brown holding the flag of the “Subterranean Pass Way” – his militant alternative to the Underground Railroad – is symbolic of his radical activism. (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1846, Washington opened one of Hartford’s first daguerrotype studios, advertising his services in antislavery newspapers such as the Charter Oak  and New York’s Ram’s Horn.  One sign of his successful reception  is his portrait of John Brown, the earliest image known of the radical abolitionist. Washington’s daguerrotypes also appealed to a broader clientele, including the poet Lydia Sigourney and insurance executive Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, founder of Aetna.  Through a combination of strategic marketing and affordable pricing  Washington built a thriving black-owned business  in competition with Hartford’s white photographers .

While cementing his reputation as a photographer,  Washington continued to pursue racial equality. His vision of how that would be obtained, however, differed from many other abolitionists. As a student, he had become convinced that white Americans were simply incapable of granting former slaves equal status. Unless abolitionists “could force emancipation, and then the perfect social and political equality of the races,” he wrote, ” human nature, human pride and passions would not allow [white] Americans to acknowledge . . . [slaves’]  equality and inalienable rights.  For that reason, he  had formed a group to advocate for “a separate state for colored Americans – not as a choice, but as a necessity, believing it would be better . . . to be freemen by ourselves than political slaves with our oppressors.”  Though he pursued the separate state concept for many years, the  outcome of the Mexican War and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 convinced him his plan was doomed to failure.

An engraving of Monrovia, Liberia, from a daguerrotype image made by Augustus Washington (Journal of Contemporary African Art)

Washington turned his focus to another venture that had long interested him, African colonization. Though he had earlier expressed utter contempt for the American Colonization Society’s  (ACS) plan to send free blacks and manumitted slaves to Africa, he had also expressed firm support for voluntary efforts by black Americans to bring Christianity, scientific progress, and American ideals to support the advancement of African society. In 1851, he publicly reversed his opposition to the ACS’s goals, and two years later, he emigrated to Liberia with his wife Cordelia, two young children, and sufficient daguerrotype equipment and supplies to establish himself as one of West Africa’s first photographers.  During his next 22 years residence in that country, he not only succeeded as a much sought after  photographer and merchant, he became a very successful sugar cane farmer, newspaper editor, and statesman. His death in the Liberian capital of Monrovia on June 7, 1875, was reported in the news as “a severe loss to Western Africa,” today in Connecticut history.

Beverly Page Yates and James B. Yates by Augustus Washington 1857 (Library of Congress)

Further Reading

Augustus Washington, “African Colonization – By a Man of Color,” Teaching American History

Ann M. Shumard, “A Durable Momento: Portraits By Augustus Washington African American Daguerrotypist,” National Portrait Gallery

Logan Nadel, “Augustus Washington: One of History’s Few Known African American Daguerrotypists,Trenton Daily 

Mary Muller, “Augustus Washington (1820–1875): African American Daguerrotypist,” connecticuthistory.org