Category Archives: engraving

Shew Fly!

Shew Fly!

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

Title of Song:  “Shew Fly!”

Composer:  George Thorne & Rollin Howard

Engraver:  J. Frank Giles

Publisher:  White, Smith & Perry

Year & Place:  1869, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-409

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0409

Basic Description

This engraving features a solitary male figure, physically gesturing in such a way as to suggest his effort to escape a large, wasp-like insect to the left.  A word balloon with the expression “SHOO FLY” issues from the man’s mouth.  His big-collared shirt, long-tailed jacket, and striped/patched trousers recall the clothing typically worn by nineteenth-century minstrels.

Personal Description

Although the artist for this cover is not as technically polished as several others in this blog, his attempt at a persuasive African American depiction is laudable.  However, like so many of the black figures typically represented on covers, this one also emphasizes the body-in-motion, with angled limbs and twisted torsos carrying their own subliminal messages and allusions.

Reality Check


Robert Morris (1823-1882)

Robert Morris became one of the first black lawyers in United States after being admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1847.  Morris was born in Salem, Massachusetts on June 8, 1823.   At an early age, Morris had some formal education at Master Dodge’s School in Salem.  With the agreement of his family, he became the student of Ellis Gray Loring, a well known abolitionist and lawyer.  By the early 1850s, Robert Morris was appointed a justice of the peace and was admitted to practice before U.S. district courts.  He occasionally served as a magistrate in courts in Boston and nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Vehemently opposed to slavery, he worked with William Lloyd Garrison, Ellis Loring and Wendell Philips and others to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  In 1851 Morris, with the help of Lewis Hayden, managed to remove from the courthouse a newly arrested fugitive slave Shadrack and helped him to get to Canada and freedom.  Arrests were made but Morris and the others were acquitted of the charges.

With the onset of the Civil War, Morris welcomed President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers but objected to the enlistment of African Americans unless they received fair and equal treatment and were offered positions as officers.  He helped in the recruitment of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first officially sanctioned African American unit in the U.S. Army but he continued to speak out against discrimination against them and other black soldiers.  Robert Morris died in Boston on December 12, 1882.



Young Eph's Lament

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

Title of Song:  “Young Eph’s Lament”

Composer:  J.B. Murphy

Engraver:  W.E. Foote

Publisher:  Jacob Endres

Year & Place:  1862, St. Louis, Missouri

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music A-1032

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  a1032

Basic Description

Arguably, this gesturing, black-faced/white-lipped man shares the engraving’s focal point with assorted titles, lyrical excerpts, and artistic bylines. Dressed in patched, striped, and too-short-and-tight-for-decorum trousers, the man’s impoverished fashion sense is further underscored by his rag-tag coat, collapsed stove-top hat, and bundled belongings on a stick.

Personal Description

Despite the downtrodden demeanor and the adjacent “lament” transcribed in an illiterate “darky” dialect, the man’s obvious burnt-cork-and-kaolin makeup, as well as his classic contraposto pose and indicatory gesture, suggest a masquerade or, perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae of pro-slavery mimicry, knowingly performed and proselytized here by Murphy and Purdy.

Reality Check


James Milton Turner (1840-1915)

James Milton Turner was a prominent politician, education advocate, and diplomat in the years after the Civil War.  Turner was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri in 1840.  His father, John Turner (also known as John Colburn), was a well-known “horse doctor” in St. Louis who had earlier purchased his freedom.  In 1843 John Turner was able to buy freedom for his wife, Hannah, and his son James.  When he was fourteen James attended Oberlin College in Ohio for one term until his father’s death in 1855 forced him to return to St. Louis to help support his mother and family.

During the Civil War Turner enlisted in the Union Army and served as the body servant for Col. Madison Miller.  After the war, Governor Thomas Fletcher (Miller’s brother-in-law), appointed Turner Assistant Superintendent of Schools responsible for establishing freedmen schools in Missouri.  Turner was also behind the effort to establish Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri, the first school to offer higher education for blacks in Missouri.  Turner was also active in organizing African Americans as a political force in Missouri.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner Ambassador to Liberia in 1871, making him the first African American to serve in the U.S. diplomatic corps.  He held the post until 1878.  Following his return to the U.S. he worked for relief and aid for Exoduster immigrants to Kansas.  In 1881 he and Hannibal Carter organized the Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association to promote black homesteading in Oklahoma.  In the last two decades of his life Turner lobbied strenuously for the rights of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw freedmen in the Indian Territory.  Turner died in 1915 in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Remus takes the cake; A Southern melody; Characteristic two step-march

Remus Takes the Cake

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

Title of Song:  Remus takes the cake; A Southern melody; Characteristic two step-march

Composer: Ellis, Jacob Henry

Engraver: Moss Photo Eng.

Publisher: Willis Woodward

Year & Date:  1896, New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music # A-2017

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: a2017

Basic Description
An African American man holds out a gigantic white cake ringed with red puffs and topped with a red bow.  His attire is ostentatious- a bright red bow tie, a flower on his lapel, a three-piece suit and tails, white gloves, and a gleaming diamond button on his shirt. The etched lines of the engraving and his blank stare give the man’s face a wooden quality. His position, with his empty white-gloved hand poised at chest level, makes him look mechanical. The man’s lips are large and disproportionate with the rest of his facial features.

Personal Description
The joy implied by the man’s smile is undermined by the wooden appearance of his face and blank look in his eyes. There is something mechanical about his actions. Finery swirls around him, from his clothes to the ribbon-bedecked cake to the delicate vine-like embellishments that seem to be inspired by French toille. Though the title and bravado of the man’s pose suggest his empowerment (maybe the cake as a prize for winning a dance contest), the man appears impotent and almost child-like, dwarfed by the pomp that encircles him.

Reality Check

Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt was born the son of free black parents on June 20, 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents had recently moved to Cleveland from Fayetteville, North Carolina in response to the growing restrictions placed on free blacks in that slave state.
By 1866, Chesnutt worked part time in the family store while regularly attending Cleveland’s Howard School for Blacks.

In 1872 Chesnutt was forced to end his formal education at the age of fourteen because he had to help support his parents.  However, the school’s principal invited him to stay at the school as a distinguished pupil-teacher and turn his modest salary over to his father.

By sixteen, Chesnutt was employed in Charlotte, North Carolina as a full-time teacher and in 1877, returned to Fayetteville, North Carolina as the assistant principal of Howard School.  In 1880 Chesnutt became the school’s principal.

In search of more lucrative employment, Chesnutt resigned his school-administrator post in 1883 and moved to New York City where he worked as a stenographer and journalist on Wall Street.  By 1887, Chesnutt returned to Cleveland and was admitted to the Ohio Bar.   As a teacher, lawyer, businessman and writer, Chesnutt was a prominent member of Cleveland’s African American elite.  By 1900, however, Chesnutt gave up his business and professional life to write and lecture full-time.

Chesnutt was one of the first black American fiction writers to receive serious critical attention and acclaim for portraying blacks realistically and sensitively. In 1899 he wrote his first major novel, The Conjure Woman. Other books followed including The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line published also in 1899, as well as a biography of Frederick Douglass first released in that same year.  Another popular publication of Chesnutt was a novel entitled The House Behind the Cedars that he published in 1900.  Many of Chesnutt’s publications reflect a similar and distinct shunning of condescending characterizations of African Americans and challenging of the usual sympathetic portrayals of slavery.  Charles Waddell Chesnutt died in Cleveland in November, 1932.

Ethiopian serenade; Burlesque

Ethiopian Serenade

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

Title of Song:  Ethiopian Serenede; Burlesque

Composer: Puerner, Charles

Publisher: Wm. A. Pond

Year & Date:  1883, New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-477

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0477

Basic Description
A man plays what appears to be a fretless banjo and sings with a far-off look in his eyes. He has dark skin but it is not clear if he is a representation of an African American man or a minstrel playing a role. The man is dressed in a top hat and a dignified, if modest suit. His eyes are disproportionately large, especially in comparison with his tiny nose,  and his lips are parted to reveal two rows of small, perfectly formed white teeth.

Personal Description
The instructions to play the “Ethiopian Serenade” on piano prompt the question of why this man is strumming a banjo. The implication seems to be that this is an authentic “Ethiopian” song that has been musically adapted for safe consumption in white middle class parlors. Words like “burlesque” and “serenade” would be clues that the rough, vernacular music of the African (played on the banjo, an instrument with African roots) had been tempered with the civility of European musical influences. The dignified yet childlike man with his banjo functions simply as a hollowed-out symbol of African American culture converted into a safe consumer amusement.

Reality Check

Ebenezer D. Bassett (1803-1908)
Ebenezer D. Bassett was appointed U.S. Minister Resident to Haiti in 1869, making him the first African American diplomat.  For eight years, the educator, abolitionist, and black rights activist oversaw bilateral relations through bloody civil warfare and coups d’état on the island of Hispaniola.

Born in Connecticut on October 16, 1833, Ebenezer D. Bassett was the second child of Eben Tobias and Susan Gregory.  Bassett was the first black student to integrate the Connecticut Normal School in 1853.  He taught in New Haven and befriended Frederick Douglass.  Later, he became the principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (ICY).

During the Civil War, Bassett helped recruit African American soldiers for the Union.  In nominating Bassett to become Minister Resident to Haiti, President Ulysses S. Grant made him one of the highest ranking black members of the United States government.

During his tenure, Bassett dealt with cases of citizen commercial claims, diplomatic immunity for his consular and commercial agents, hurricanes, fires, and numerous tropical diseases.

Upon the end of the Grant Administration in 1877, Bassett submitted his resignation as was customary with a change of hands in government.  When he returned to the United States, he spent an additional ten years as the Consul General for Haiti in New York City. Prior to this death on November 13, 1908, he returned to live in Philadelphia, where his daughter Charlotte also taught at the ICY.


My Home in Alabam’

My Home in Alabam'

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

Title of Song:  My Home in Alabam’

Composer: Putnam, James S.

Publisher: John F. Perry

Year & Date:  1881, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music#  B-666
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0666

Basic Description
A man sits on a wooden chair in a sparse garret bedroom with a banjo on his lap and his head in his hand. He stares at the viewer with a distant, troubled look, in a pose like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The town-like setting in the window contrasts with the plantation scene above— a dream space corralled by a dense frame of cloud-like circles.  The cracks and exposed bricks in the wall, along with the jagged hemlines of the man’s pant legs set depressing tone.  Rather than being integrated with the picture, the title text is set in the white space around the image. Two title options, “My Dear Savannah Home,” and “My Home in Alabam” are listed in sober typeface.

Personal Description
Each title option can lead to a different and contradictory interpretation of the image. Interestingly, this pamphlet includes two song sheet covers for other “plantation melodies” printed by the same publisher. This imagery makes light of the plantation experience, showing caricatured African Americans dancing or filling pails with berries. Like the song illustrated on the main cover, these songs also have two titles each that contrast oddly with each other. “De Huckleberry Picnic”  implies a recreational activity at one’s own free will but “Since I Saw de Cotton Grow” suggests the forced labor of slavery or the exploitation of sharecropping.  “My Dear Savannah Home” implies that the seated man is nostalgic for plantation life. But “My Home in Alabam” is vague, allowing the plantation memory invading the scene to be interpreted not as a cherished dream but rather an oppressive nightmare.

Reality Check

Edward Alexander Bouchet
Edward Alexander Bouchet was an educator and scientist who was born in New Haven Connecticut. His family was a member of the Temple Street Congregational Church, a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.

In 1868, Bouchet was accepted into Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution that prepared young men for the classical and scientific departments at Yale College. He graduated first in his class at Hopkins and graduated from Yale in 1874, ranking sixth in his class. In 1876, he completed a dissertation on geometrical optics,  becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from an American University and the sixth American of any race to earn a PhD in Physics.

Bouchet moved to Philadelphia in 1876 to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth, the city’s only high school for African American students.  Bouchet gave public lectures to his community in Philadelphia on scientific topics and was a member of the Franklin Institute, a foundation for the promotion of the mechanic arts, chartered in 1824.

In 1908, he became principal of Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained until 1913, when an attack of arteriosclerosis compelled him to resign and return to New Haven. He died in his boyhood home in 1916.

(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

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

Title of Song:     Walking for Dat Cake

Composer:         Braham, David

Publisher:          Wm. A. Pond

Year & Place:    1877; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:               Music B-156

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  hasm.b0156

Basic Description

This image depicts a warm scene of revelry and dance inside of a wooden dwelling.  Young couples move about the floor in formal attire with the boys in suits and the women in dresses. The adults in this image line the walls and the outskirts of the floor. One couple, consisting of a male and a female watch the festivities from the back, far left portion of the space. while another couple stands in the far right of the background near the entrance of the house. Dancing in the far left foreground, a matronly woman balances a plate of food on her head. She wears glasses as well as an apron. Mirroring her movements and creating a symmetrical composition, directly across from her is an older gentleman with a pipe in his right hand. In the background, directly in front of the window, a small, thin boy participates in the festivities by dancing on top of a table. Illuminating this joyous evening is a large, lit, fireplace as well as a candle on top of the mantle. Portraits, chairs pushed against the walls and a clock lining the wall remind the viewer of the space’s domestic character.

Personal Description

The fifteen individuals packed into this small space make this image extraordinarily crowded.   The source of the music is also conspicuously absent. The occasion for this dance and the individual identities of these people are also missing pieces of contextual information that the viewer cannot visually access. One might infer that these constitute free blacks from their fancy dress and participation in an activity of leisure.  All that the viewer can know for sure, however, about this image is that there is a group of black people dancing. In this way, it contains elements of caricature, as it reduces black identity to dance. Still, there are other dichotomies exist in this image. First, the artist chose not to create a grotesque illustration scene of debauchery that would have been more in line with the hypersexualized, revival-esque dance with which African-Americans were associated. Instead, the illustrator drew a restrained scene of civilized dance. This is, however, punctured by anomalies. A woman dances with food on her head and a boy dances on top of a table. Other characters are not clearly adults or children, straddling a strange space between youth and maturation.  It is as if the artist wanted to suggest that they can’t quite get it right. Thus, this image combines subtle stereotyping with an indirect critique of middle-class African-American life.

Reality Check

Reality Check - Walking for Dat Cake - Schomburg Digital Image Archive

Sketch from February 26, 1870 Harper’s Weekly

“There are now about one hundred buildings occupied by the schools of this [New York] city.  While all of these buildings are convenient and healthful, the newer buildings are a great improvement on those erected in former years.  They have been constructed on the best principles of arrangement, fitted with conveniences for teachers and pupils, supplied with the best kind of furniture, and are warmed and ventilated by the best apparatus.  They vary in size, some occupying only two lots, other six or seven.  It has been found that large buildings are much more economical and convenient than small ones; and not infrequently two thousand pupils, and even a larger number are well accommodated.

The sketches that illustrate this article will give the reader a very complete idea of the internal arrangements of our common schools.  The first gives an exterior view of one of the school buildings; No. 2 shows a lesson in object teaching in a class-room in a colored school; No. 3 a girls’ class in calisthenics; No. 4, a girls’ class in drawing; No. 5, a writing lesson.  These sketches were all taken from actual scenes and are accurate representations of them.”

Wait, my Children, Wait!

B152 - Wait, my Children, Wait!

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

Title of Song:         Wait, My Childrem, Wait

Composer:             Dekress, Charles R

Publisher:              John Church

Year & Place:      1880; Cincinnati, Ohio

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                  Music B-152

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:    hasm.b0152

Basic Description

A raucous scene of a group of boys who have disrobed and swim in a large body of water near a shore takes place in this image.  One boy, completely naked, dives into the water while the other float displaying an assortment of body parts.  While some are almost completely submerged with only their heads peeking above the water’s surface, others are upside down with legs and feet visible to the viewer.  In the bushes on the shoreline are two personified animals who seem to stare at this curious scene.  With their rapt gaze and comportment exhibiting a verticality with two legs and feet firmly on the ground, their behavior recalls that of a human.  Above this aquatic adventure is an angel blowing a trumpet, to which two of children seem to both acknowledge and respond, while resting on a set of clouds.

Personal Description

This out-of-control, ambiguous, scene combines the fantastic, with revival-esque religious undertones.  Rather than render an apparition, the angel looks just like the other figures and interacts with them.  Additionally, it is unclear from the lyrics whether the angel is there to warn the children of an impending danger or to issue more malicious taunts about their ‘wooly’ hair as the lyrics suggest.  The two animals present look and behave like humans and stand up vertically, while children are upside down and several limbs appear without attached bodies.  The eerily static animals have a sinister manner as they silently watch the kids, who seem in a curious reversal, to act like animals.  All of these elements push this scene beyond the denigrating humor of caricature to a visual realm that is disordered, sub-human and out of this world.

Reality Check

Wallace Shelton Polk, 1874 – 1877

Wallace Shelton Polk was born around 1870 to Elias J. and Sarah Polk. At the time this photo was taken the family was living on West Canal St. Elias was a laborer and a foreman at the city stables. Wallace became a porter and tacker and later an advertising agent. He had an older brother, James.  Wallace Shelton Polk was about four years old when this photograph was taken.  The photographer was James Presley Ball, an African-American photographer based in Cincinnati, Ohio.   He is standing on an arm-less upholstered chair. The chair is velvet with heavy fringe around the seat and buttons in the back. There is a tassel hanging from the curved back. He is leaning on a round table covered with a solid cloth. There is a painted background with a column and a drape on the left. His dark hair is parted on the side. He is wearing a bolero style jacket with buttons on each side. The top button is buttoned. The card is on thicker stock and has been trimmed all around. The imprint is lengthwise on the back in purple with “P. B Thomas, Retoucher” printed in the corner. Wallace’s name is written in pencil on the back.  Wallace died Sept. 27, 1915 and is buried in the Union Baptist Cemetery.