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American Quarterly 54.3 (2002) 369-410

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"Rosebloom and Pure White," Or So It Seemed

Mary Niall Mitchell
University of New Orleans


WE HAVE A PICTURE OF ROSA DOWNS, THOUGH WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT SHE thought about having it made. In a photograph taken in a studio in New York in 1864 (fig. 1), she appears to have been a little girl born into the Victorian middle class, like the unnamed child who sat for a photographer in Philadelphia the same year (fig. 2). Both girls' portraits were rendered in vignette, a style popular at the time in which only the head of the sitter was visible, surrounded by soft white space—a style that made young children look very much like angels. 1 But the similarity between these young girls ended at appearances. Their faces had been photographed for very different reasons. Their prospects, too, would never be the same. And those viewers who, at first glance, took Rosa for a white child would have seen her otherwise once they read the words that were beneath her portrait: "Rosa [her name in lovely script], A Slave Girl from New Orleans."

Rosina (known as Rosa) Downs, age "not quite seven," was one of five children and three adults freed at the city of New Orleans by Union Major General N.P. Banks in 1863. Colonel George Hanks, serving on a commission appointed by Banks that was responsible for the education and labor of freedpeople, took this group of eight emancipated slaves north that year with the help of representatives from the American Missionary Association and the National Freedman's Relief Association. 2 Their tour involved both public appearances and visits to photographers' studios to sit for portraits, which were in turn sold to raise money to fund newly established schools for freedpeople in [End Page 369] Louisiana. 3 A photographic portrait of the entire group from Louisiana was made into an engraving and printed on a full page of Harper's Weekly in 1864 with an accompanying letter to the editor from one of the missionary sponsors, appearing under the provocative headline, "White and Colored Slaves" (fig. 3). Nearly all of the individual and small group portraits made, however, featured the children—Isaac, Augusta, Rosa, Charles, and Rebecca. Of these portraits, most included only the whitest-looking children: Rosa, Rebecca, and Charles (fig. 4). 4

The decision to display white-looking children was due, in part, to the earlier success of a girl child named Fanny Lawrence (fig. 5) (to whom we shall return) who had been "redeemed" in Virginia. 5 As Fanny had done, Rosa, Rebecca, and Charles captivated white northern audiences. In an account of the group's appearance in New York, these children were singled out: "three of the children," said the Evening Post, "were perfectly white, and had brown hair." 6 Isaac and Augusta, [End Page 370] [Begin Page 372] both darker-skinned than the others, along with the clearly black adults, were mostly absent from the photographs. When the sponsors opted to take the children on to Philadelphia for more appearances and sittings in photography studios, Isaac and Augusta were left behind. 7

The whitest-looking girls, however, seem to have received the most attention. There are more surviving cartes de visite of them in archives than of the others, suggesting that perhaps more people bought pictures of them. And unlike photographs of Charles, the white-looking boy, representations of Rosa and Rebecca seemed especially tailored to pique viewers' interest. In Harper's Weekly, Rosina Downs was described as "a fair child with blonde complexion and silky hair." Her rather mature-sounding name was shortened to "Rosa" for the photographic [End Page 372] portraits, presumably to emphasize her innocence and youth. Rebecca Huger, age eleven, was a little older, and photographers often dressed and posed her to seem more a young lady than a child. Of Rebecca, the missionary wrote to Harper's: "to all appearance, she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood." 8...