Tell Me Josey Whar You Been

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina


Composer: John Smith and Lubly Dinah

Illustrator: Bufford

Lithographer: Thayer’s Litho, Boston

Publisher: Henry Prentiss

Year & Date:  1841, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #hasmsm002

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasmsm002

Basic Description

Rendered as a horizontally-oriented oval, this lithograph depicts an outdoor scene dominated by a smiling, barefoot man, reclining at the base of a tree trunk and holding a garden hoe on his lap.  In the middle-to-far distance of this scene, one can discern: (middleground left) two white gentlemen seated and conversing while drinking; (extreme background left) a small group of animated figures; (middleground and to the immediate upper right of the reclining man) a gun-toting and bearded white man; and (middleground right) another group of animated figures.

Personal Description

The visual marginalia of relaxing white men, one lone white male hunter, and several unidentified groups of animated figures indict the grinning and reclining central figure in this scene, bringing into question his cavalier and jocular attitude.  The artist clearly knows about several major antebellum paintings (especially by William Sidney Mount) that, like this lithograph, make African American leisure a public indiscretion and, as seen in the gun-carrying white man immediately behind him, a punishable act.

Reality Check


William Cooper Nell (1816–1874)

William Cooper Nell, historian, journalist, orator, and abolitionist, was born into a Boston abolitionist family.  Nell attended an African American grammar school and graduated from an interracial school.  As a student, he earned the right to an academic prize but, because of his race, was denied the award.  The experience led him at an early age into battles against race discrimination and segregation in public schools.  After studying law, Nell dedicated himself to antislavery work, lecturing, organizing meetings, and assisting fugitive slaves.  He helped establish in 1842 the Freedom Association.  Inspired by white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Nell joined Garrison’s journal, The Liberator in the early 1840s. He managed the paper’s Negro Employment Office and wrote articles, while continuing to lecture and organize antislavery meetings.  Like Garrison, he consistently opposed separate African American antislavery conventions and organizations.  In 1847, Nell moved to Rochester where he joined Frederick Douglass in publishing Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star.

In 1851, Nell finished his pamphlet, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812, one of the first pieces of historical writing devoted to the experiences of African Americans.  Following the breach between Garrison and Douglass, Nell resigned at The North Star and in 1852 returned to Boston.  In April 1855, Nell published The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, the first comprehensive work of African American history.  In 1862, he became a postal clerk, one of the first such federal appointments for an African American, and he held the position until his death in 1874.


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