The Black Collectors Who Championed African-American Art during the U.S. Civil War

Jordan Taliha McDonald
Aug 11, 2020 4:12PM

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

During the late 19th century, in the midst of the United States Civil War, two free Black men set out to plan an art exhibition. At a time when the future of chattel slavery and Black life hung in the balance of a national quarrel, these men, William H. Dorsey and Edward M. Thomas, negotiated their precarious freedoms through the collection and promotion of Black art.

Thomas, who worked for the government as a messenger of the House of Representatives, had established himself outside of work as a fervent collector of art and literature. His collection—which boasted 600 volumes, artworks, coinage, autographs, and archival documents—was stored in his home at the corner of Washington, D.C.’s K and 17th streets. Starting in 1862, Thomas would begin planning his dream exhibition, putting out a call for submissions in the Black press titled “Colored Inventors, Artists, Mechanics, &c.” Intent on creating an exhibition that celebrated Black innovation and artistry, Thomas found support and collaboration for the project working alongside other Black art collectors, like Dorsey.

Based further north, in Philadelphia, Dorsey had made a name for himself, first as an artist and, later, as an avid art collector whose holdings included a number of so-called “rare curiosities,” oil and watercolor paintings “by artists of established reputation,” a work by African American landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson, and several portraits of prominent African Americans. He was also a devoted and tireless scrapbooker. Unlike D.C., where slavery was not abolished until 1862, the Philadelphia of Dorsey’s time had banished slavery—although records of Pennsylvania slaves held in bondage long after the institution’s abolition in 1780 suggest freedom in the North was insecure at best. Still, the city had witnessed the rise of notable Black elites, among whom Dorsey was considered a valuable community member.

The son of a runaway slave who settled in the city of Philadelphia in the early 1830s, Dorsey’s very status as a free man was made possible by fugitivity—if his father had not escaped, Dorsey’s life as an artist and collector wouldn’t have been possible. In the face of terror, opposition, and gratuitous violence, Black people during and after the period of chattel slavery found themselves toiling for beauty and possibility against great odds. As the “free” son of a “fugitive slave,” Dorsey’s quest for art and innovation cannot be separated from his father’s insistence on freedom. It is only through Black fugitivity that all other pursuits become possible.

Working to organize an art exhibition during the Civil War, Dorsey and Thomas wielded their power as art collectors at a moment charged with political possibility. Their collaboration raises a few questions about the role of the Black art collector and archivist in the midst of freedom struggle, among them: What does the art exhibition mean when the plantation remains? As records of Dorsey and Thomas’s lives as free men teach us, the racial history of property and ownership forged under slavery cannot be severed from the practice of collecting art and artifacts in a settler colony like the United States.

New imaginaries

One of the earliest descriptions of Thomas’s D.C.-based collection was published in an 1860 edition of the Weekly Anglo-African. Remarking on the existence of Black collectors, the article stated, “many valuable collections may be found among our people, which are acquired not merely for show, but for actual study and service.” In the article, several artworks by John G. Chaplin, William Simpson, and Dorsey are emphasized as notable pieces in Thomas’s collection. Shifting gears from its inventory of Thomas’s acquisitions, the Weekly Anglo-African article posed an important rhetorical question about the collection’s owner: “Who would imagine that in Washington such a collection would be found to be the private property of a colored man?”

This question, posed by a member of the Black press and published in a Black publication, conveys an understanding of the relationship between Blackness and property in the Americas. Embedded in the question is an answer of sorts: “no one” would imagine that a collection of this kind could belong to a “colored man,” because an entirely different property relation precedes the advent of the Black art collector—one of Blackness and Black people as property to be owned.

In art historian Peter H. D. Kaplan’s book, Contraband Guides: Race, Transatlantic Culture, and the Arts in the Civil War Era, the interplay between Blackness, slavery, and property is shown to play out in the art world in distinct ways. Kaplan’s work takes its title from American writer Mark Twain’s 1869 travel book Innocents Abroad, in which the term “contraband guide”—which historically referred to fugitive slaves who assisted Union armies—is used to describe a Black man who showcases art in Venice. In Innocents Abroad, a Black cicerone introduces Twain to a series of Venetian paintings. Twain finds himself at once in awe of the art and disturbed by his Black guide’s wealth of knowledge about the Renaissance. Of the scene, Twain remarked: “I could not bear to be ignorant before a cultivated Negro, the offspring of a South Carolina slave.”

Twain’s insistence on naming this scene “A Contraband Guide” is instructive. The choice indicates that, despite what “freedom papers” this unnamed Black cicerone may or may not have had, his freedom was always already “stolen” in the eyes of his white audience—his knowledge of Western art fraudulent by association. The scene asserts that those deemed property cannot be “free,” only fugitive. Where does this leave Thomas, the “unimaginable” Black art collector of 19th-century Washington, D.C.? Are he and Dorsey yet another pair of contraband guides? Where do the histories of actual enslaved craftspeople such as Dave the Potter fit alongside these narratives of the disparaged Black cicerone and the unfathomable Black art collector?

The collector class

As “free men” of the late 19th century, Thomas and Dorsey’s work as art collectors cannot be divorced from matters of class and the discourses of cultural refinement and “racial uplift” that dominated Black elite spaces in this era. To make sense of Thomas and Dorsey as elites, it is both the company these men kept and the positions they held in various social groups and organizations that tell us the most about their class stature. In an excerpt from The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South, the historian John Syrett recounted a hostile meeting in 1862 between President Abraham Lincoln and an art and industry institute of which Thomas was acting president. According to Syrett, President Lincoln attempted to recruit Thomas and his group to assist in his “colonization plan” to establish American colonies in Liberia and Central America where free Blacks would be sent following Emancipation.

Reaching out to Black elites specifically, Lincoln sought out Black community leaders, doctors, lawyers, and government officials to assist in the settling of lands that were already inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The meeting is a reminder that settler colonialism is a highly curated affair, and a project in which the so-called Black upper class or petite bourgeoisie is crucial. And though Thomas reportedly rejected Lincoln’s offer and its premise, it speaks volumes to the status he held that this is the role Lincoln envisioned for men like him.

More interested in plans of his own, Thomas continued to promote his dream exhibition in the early months of 1863, before Lincoln officially signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Tragically, due to his untimely death in March of that year, the exhibition was never fully realized. Nonetheless, as a testament to the high esteem in which Thomas was held, sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward created a bust of him, one of the first on record in the United States to depict a Black subject. In an interesting turn of events, an 1874 article in Frederick Douglass’s New National Era features a description of Dorsey’s collection-turned-museum in Philadelphia, which reportedly included a bust of the late Thomas. As Kaplan suggested in his book, Dorsey, who was very involved with Thomas’s funeral arrangements, likely acquired the bust from Thomas’s estate. Survived only by his wife, the remainder of Thomas’s collection was either dispersed in auctions or passed on to family and friends by 1865.

We are left to imagine what Thomas might have gone on to do with his life had he not died just a few months after Emancipation, and how the abolition of slavery would have affected him both personally and professionally. An agent of the Contraband Association—an organization that provided support to fugitive slaves—at the time of his death, surely Thomas would’ve rejoiced to hear the news of slavery’s abolition.

Following Thomas’s death, Dorsey, who lived until 1923, continued to promote the history of Black artists and collectors during the post-Emancipation period. In response to an 1877 notice in the Alexandria, Virginia-based Black newspaper People’s Advocate about the sketches of prominent Black artists, Dorsey remarked on the legacy of Black art, a tradition marked by beauty and terror before and after Emancipation.

For decades now, Black historians, artists, and theorists have urged us to complicate romantic narratives about Emancipation. Their work has forced us to contend with Emancipation as an exhibition of the state’s creative power to both enslave and manumit at will. Articulating these fraught conditions of freedom, theorist Christina Sharpe has described Black life after Emancipation as living in “the afterlife of property.”

In drawing out matters of class, race, and fugitivity in Thomas and Dorsey’s lives, we are pushed to think critically about the role of the Black collector in the afterlife of property. These men dedicated themselves to Black art and community, knowing well that anti-Blackness jeopardized those very projects. Their persistence reminds us that, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, “beauty is not a luxury; it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure.”

Jordan Taliha McDonald