My Ole Home in Alabama ‘fo’ de War

My Ole Home in Alabama

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

Title of Song:  My Ole Home in Alabama ‘fo’ de War

Composer:  Rutledge, John T.

Illustrator:  Baker, J.E.

Publisher:  G.D. Russell

Year & Place:  1875, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-658

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0658

Basic Description
A bearded African American man grips a cane and stares into space with a look of consternation. Judging from the anchor to his right and the faint outlines of clipper ships, this is a wharf or dock. A worker pulling a barrel looks at the man with an inane expression. He wears light clothing with rolled-up shirtsleeves, while the old man wears a coat and scarf. It is not clear if the older man works at the dock or is just passing through. The wind whipping through his scarf and his heavier dress imply that he is cold or, given the dockworker’s dress, unsuited to the climate. The pouch tied to his waist seems out of context, like something a seventeenth-century European bard would have.  In the top right of the frame is a smaller image of a man and woman in fancy clothing, stepping through a mass of flowers outside what seems to be a house. This is evidently the old man’s memory. The dark shadows of the wharf contrast effectively with the brightness of this vision; this remembered place is warm and filled with light while the wharf is cold and foggy. A dog sniffs the man’s feet. The title of the piece is artistically woven into the illustration itself.

Personal Description
The message of this lithograph is ambiguous– is this a former slave who is uncomfortable in the post-Civil War context? Does it reflect sympathy for everyone who had to leave their homes as a result of the Civil War? The artist renders the man almost with pathos and also without any of the characteristics common to racist caricature at the time. The man appears cold and overtaken with nostalgia for the past, a sentiment that is emphasized by the artist’s use of a high contrast. The space of the man’s memory is brightly lit while the dock is somewhat dark and shadowy. The darkness of the dock combined with the man’s serious expression, especially in contrast with the dockworker’s goofiness,  create a sense of isolation and alienation. The posters behind the African American man’s body advertise boat trips to Alabama, which the title suggests is the man’s home. If the message of the image matches that of the title, one is left to wonder what stops this man from hopping one of these boats. Perhaps this is what he is about to do.

Reality Check

George Washington Williams, was a 19th century American historian most famous for his volumes, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880; as Negroes, as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (1882), and A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion (1887).Williams was born in 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania and lived there until 1864, when at the age of 14 and lacking virtually any education he left home to join the Union Army. Engaged by the soldier’s lifestyle, he followed this by fighting in Mexico in the overthrow of Maximilian.

After his military career and out of a deep desire for education Williams attended the Newton Theological Institution in Massachusetts. By the time he was 25 years old he had graduated, married, and become pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. During the next several years he wrote as a columnist for the Cincinnati Commercial, became a lawyer, founded a Boston newspaper called The Commoner (1875), and became the first black member of his state legislature.

Williams spent only one term in political office, partly because he saw little chance of reelection, and partly because he increasingly desired to commit the majority of his time to working as a historian. In his historical works Williams strove for objectivity and the truthful recording of history, but he also essentially wrote from a revisionist perspective. He researched avidly and wrote with the goal of rerecording American history to honestly and responsibly include the roles and experiences of African Americans.

His first text, The History of the Negro Race in America, received a plethora of literary reviews — largely favorable critiques. Of the negative reviews he faced, most critics noted that his writing style tended to be overblown and was tinted by his theological training.  Nonetheless almost all reviewers noted the immense value of the work he had done. Public reaction was by and large a kind of amazement — both because of the extent of his work (the text was two volumes in total) and because he was an African American. In fact his light skin tone and dignified demeanor gained him more respect from white Americans than may have been expected at the time. A History of the Negro Troops received similar but generally better reviews.

In 1890 Williams studied conditions in the Belgian Congo at the commission of President Benjamin Harrison and on one occasion wrote a letter of complaint to the Belgian Crown about the treatment of the indigenous Africans.  Although he had hoped to spark a movement in protest of the Belgian government’s role in its African colony, little came of his effort in the U.S.  He then moved to England to work on a book which would focus on Africa. Unfortunately Williams fell ill shortly after arriving in England and died at the age of 41.

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2 responses to “My Ole Home in Alabama ‘fo’ de War

  1. This illustration seems to offer a highly ambivalent vision of the plight of former slaves displaced by the Civil War. The waterfront setting is important in this regard. In part, of course, the setting allows for the invocation of a possible “return” to the central figure’s lost Alabama home. But period viewers would have also recognized the urban waterfront as a socially liminal environment–a space associated with labor and working-class organization, with libertine entertainments (drinking, prostitution, etc.), and with violence and crime. Situated in the marginal space of the waterfront, the former slave appears here as a figure on the borders of Northern urban life. The illustration suggests, moreover, that this figure is doubly marginal, existing in an uneasy relationship to the Northern working class. Smiling and youthful, the background stevedore appears as the antithesis of the bent and grizzled freedman. The stevedore’s repetitive, nonproductive mode of labor further contrasts with the productive agricultural work of the old man’s imagined past, which the song lyrics describe: “when I was at my home…we use to hoe de cotton and de sugar cane an corn.” In certain ways, then, the songsheet illustration seems to speak to the frustrations and difficulties facing new members of the Northern black working class after the Civil War. Published by a Boston printer for a Northern white audience, the songsheet may have been designed to generate (paternalistic) sympathy for the plight of the former slave who found him/herself without a sure path into Northern society. This project is nevertheless bound up with a pernicious, romanticizing vision of slavery, which is associated visually with sentimental bliss (in the dream-cloud picture of romance) and lyrically with satisfying work and racial harmony. The visual motif of the dream cloud, moreover, would seem to further complicate the meanings of the foreground figure. Leaning against a wall and hunched over as if viscerally affected by his daydream, the man models an absorbed reverie that contrasts with the industry of the background worker. Appearing as a “dreamer” rather than an industrious “doer,” the figure would seem to connect to pejorative images of indolent black subjects that circulated in the period. This resonance in turn allows the figure to be read as the agent of his own subordination.

    • blackimagestereotype

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful interpretation, Ross, which I find quite convincing. However, what’s kept me intrigued with this image and, arguably, lifts it from the majority of minstrel-era pictorial derogation and false sentimentality, is the embedded humanity within the artist’s rendering. Unlike so many images from this era, this one alludes to the main protagonist’s inner life and, therefore, suggests the presence of a soul. Thanks to the memory balloon, we know he had a bucolic and romantic past (with garlands of flowers and elegant clothing no less!!). Thanks to the meticulous rendering, white viewers can perhaps feel something for this man, despite his blackness and indigent status. Then again (and as you know so well), 19th-century audiences were largely incapable of making many of the same emotional and psychological leaps of faith that early 21st-century audiences make. But it’s still hard not to imagine that such a sensitive, soft, and skilled drawing wasn’t capable of eliciting not just sympathy, but empathy in its time.

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