Category Archives: Euro-Americans

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.



When Sousa Comes to Coon-Town

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

Title of Song:  “When Sousa comes to coon-town”

Composer:  Jim Vaughn & Lemonier

Lyricist:  Alex Rogers

Publisher:  Shapiro, Bernstein and Company

Year & Place:  1902, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-184

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0184

Basic Description

The scene in this two-color (red and blue) lithograph is an outdoor parade, dominated by the banner “WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN.”  Underneath the banner is an orchestra of regimented white men, marching in unison in blue uniforms and led by a baton-wielding man with a beard and spectacles.  Surrounding the band are an enthralled audience of caricatured, white-lipped, beady-eyed, black people.  Most prominent among the caricatured throngs are: a top hat-wearing elderly man (on the far right); a bandanna- and apron-wearing rotund woman (parallel to the bandleader); and, just underneath the bandleader, six grotesque children who seem to be imitating him.

Personal Description

The inset box in the sheet music’s lower left corner, featuring formal photographs of African American performers Bert Williams and George Walker (along with titles and accolades), creates a fascinating counterpoint to the sheet music’s comical and stereotypical illustration.  Although the photographs convey a conceptual truth about these specific African Americans, the illustration does not operate without its own “truths” (i.e., the drawn “portrait” of the legendary bandleader John Phillip Sousa).  So the dilemma this sets up for viewers is: do these real portrayals in any way counter the adjacent images of absurd and degenerative African Americans?

Reality Check


The Clef Club Orchestra (with James Reese Europe), circa 1910

The Clef Club was a part fraternal organization, part union for African American entertainers at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The building it purchased on West 53rd Street served both as the club’s headquarters and as an office for theatrical bookings.  Legendary bandleader and musician James Reese Europe was the Clef Club’s first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.

The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912.  They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914.  The Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society and, as a result, they regularly performed at elite functions in New York, London, and Paris.  The club functioned as a clearing-house not only for musicians, but for all types of entertainers and, under Europe’s leadership, it was actively involved in improving the working conditions for African American entertainers.  When an act was booked through the Clef Club, the musicians were considered professionals and received a good salary, transportation expenses, room, and board.  The club proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at the height of its popularity.

One Clef Club Orchestra performance boasted 150 musicians, although not everyone who was on stage in some shows could actually play an instrument. Some were purely window-dressing, taught just enough to get them through performances, while others simply pretended to play their instruments.  In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned as its leader and Ford Dabney took over his spot as bandleader.

Polly Perkins of Pemberton Green

Polly Perkins of Pemberton Green

Polly Perkins of Pemberton Green

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

Title of Song:   Polly Perkins of Pemberton

Composer:       Clifton, Harry

Illustrator:      Bufford, J.H.

Publisher:        Tolman, Henry

Year & Place:  Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B-2061

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  hasm.b2061

Basic Description

This sheet music cover is composed of five small vignettes (cameo) portraits.  Each portrait is framed by lush botanical foliage as vines and leaves seem to grow out of the bottom of the page and wind around in circles.  Within each oval frame is a male.  In each one, the man wears different set of clothing and his body takes on a different position.  In all portraits but one the man appears in blackface make-up.  All five images depict the same person, presumably, R. Bishop Buckley.  In the cameo of the top left hand corner, the man wears sits on a chair in a light-colored, pajama-like garments while holding a instrument requiring a long bow.  The central vignette shows Buckley in a vest and conventional pants.  Here, however, he sits on the ground with his arms open, gesturing toward the viewer in a sinister manner.  In the adjacent portrait man sports a coat and scarf with a unrecognizeable cap on his head.  The last portrait beneath this shows him sitting again in profile with a tambourine as his eyes stare out at the audience.

Personal Description

The most striking aspect of this image is not the depiction of one man in four different minstrel costumes.  It is that he is shown, purposively, both with and without the blackface mask.  Indeed, the whole composition exudes a revelatory tone as the foliage seems to have been lifted or brushed aside like curtains to reveal each character.  And this calls into question what differences existed between Buckley and his blackface incarnations.  With a partially empty nevertheless serious gaze, the performer sits in the lower left hand corner.  Unlike many of his characters, most of his body is invisible to the viewer.  He adopts the quintessential image of respectability with an erect posture and a full-suit consisting of a jacket, vest, white collared shirt and a bowtie.  In contrast, the other vignettes suggest an affinity for music, visually restating the stereotype of an inherent inclination in blacks for music.  This juxtaposition sets up a contrast that attempts to carefully delineate dissimilarities between the man and his masks.

Reality Check

Chester Harding - Self Portrait - 1860

Chester Harding (1792-1866), Self-Portrait, c.1860

Chester Harding was a self-taught portrait painter. He was born in Massachusetts in 1792. Harding spent his early adult years in the state of New York, struggling to earn a living as a cabinet maker. In debt, he fled with his wife and child to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where an acquaintance suggested he open a sign-painter¹s shop.  A traveling portrait painter came through town and painted pictures of Harding and his wife. Harding was fascinated with the idea of portraiture and used his work paints to create a picture of his wife. The portrait turned out surprisingly well. Portrait orders rolled in, and Harding saved enough money to afford classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Design. He traveled and painted portraits the remainder of his life. Harding spent a great deal of time in St. Louis, Washington, DC, London, and Boston.  Charles Harding painted many legendary faces. Other famous pictures include portraits of Chief Justice John Marshall and Civil War Major General William T. Sherman.



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.


"Slave Life," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

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

Title of Song:  “Slave Life, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Composer:  Charles Jeffreys

Publisher:  C. Jeffreys

Year & Place:  1853, London, England

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  hasmsm006

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasmsm006

Basic Description

The focus of this lithograph is a black woman with plaited hair holding a small, elegantly-dressed white boy in her arms.  The woman’s strapless and sleeveless dress — pleated and ill-fitting, as if improvised from window curtains or bed linen — reveals her supple arms and upper torso.

Personal Description

No doubt referencing the passages in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Topsy playfully drapes herself in assorted linens and towels, this image subliminally turns this woman and her dress into a metaphoric bed, in which the slumbering child curls up. Performed in blackface by the white actress “Mrs. Keeley”, this Topsy is maternal rather than impish, and would not have been out of place in a Victorian-era colonial setting such as India, South Africa, or Jamaica.

Reality Check


Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her Jamaican mother was a practitioner of traditional medicine and had a boarding house where she cared for the sick. Mary learned about medicine from her mother, soon gaining her own reputation as a “skilful nurse and doctress”.

In 1836 Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, godson of the British naval hero, Lord Nelson, but after only eight years the marriage was cut short by his early death.  Mary travelled widely – there were two trips to Britain and, in 1851, she joined her brother Edward in Panama, where she opened a hotel. Soon she had saved her first cholera patient, and gained extensive knowledge of the pathology of this disease, which she herself had contracted and recovered from. She was widely praised for her work in treating cholera, and returned to Jamaica in 1853.

She then traveled again to London, where she heard about the Crimean war and how the nursing system there had collapsed. She made applications to the War Office, the army medical department, and the secretary of war to be allowed to go to the Crimea and tend to the sick and wounded. She pointed out that she had extensive experience, excellent references and knew many of the soldiers and regiments, having nursed them while they were stationed in Jamaica.  But she was turned away by everybody, including one of Florence Nightingale’s assistants.

Seacole and a relative of hers agreed to launch a general store and hotel near the British camp in the Crimea. So, at the age of 50, Mary went to the battle zone as a sutler: a person who follows the army and sells provisions to the troops. The moment she arrived there were sick and wounded to attend to. Soon the entire British army knew of “Mother Seacole.” The assistant surgeon of the 90th Light Infantry watched with admiration as she would administer to the soldiers, giving them tea and food and words of comfort. She was often on the front line and frequently under fire. Mary Seacole’s reputation after the Crimean War rivaled that of Florence Nightingale’s.

The end of the war left Seacole impoverished and, soon thereafter, she went bankrupt. Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, both Crimean commanders, organized a benefit at the Royal Surrey Gardens to raise money for Mary. In 1857, Mary published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in many lands. She was awarded a Crimean medal, and a bust was made of her by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, sculptor and nephew of Queen Victoria. The last 25 years of her life, however, were spent in obscurity.