Category Archives: landscapes (environments)

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.


I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

I'se Gwine Back To Leave Old Dixie

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

Title of Song:  I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

Composer: White, Charles Albert

Lyricist: Cooper, George

Lithographer: F.M. Haskell  & Co.

Publisher: White, Smith & Company

Year & Date:  1879, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-745

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0745

Basic Description
This lithograph consists of a framed illustration with embellished lettering above and below. The illustration shows an old man and woman sitting on top of a horse and buggy. The vehicle is stuffed with their personal belongings— mostly the tools of manual labor— a hoe, a broom, a saw— some chairs, and some wooden barrels.  The man has a white beard and what appears to be a cane behind his shoulder. He is hunched over, tired-looking and frail. The woman holds a clock in her hands. The horse’s eyes are covered by blinders and two children, a boy and a girl, stare at it. A scrawny dog with its ribs showing trots next to them. The outlines of two people working in the field are faintly visible.

Personal Description
The clock stands out from the farm-related belongings and seems to symbolize the pressures facing the couple; the scene could be read in the context of the failure of Reconstruction.  But is this couple sad to leave home or simply worn out, weary, and hungry? In other song sheet covers on this blog, “Dixie,” as an imagined place, is invested with emotional power. A pull toward self-improvement and prosperity in the North is sometimes undermined by disillusionment and a mental Southward slide toward familiarity and so-called comfort. “I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie” is a song about leaving the South out of financial need, but wanting to stay. The lithograph could be seen as representing the transition from an idealized way of life to a world of  urgent financial pressures. Rather than representing the hope of a new generation, the children almost seem to be witnessing their own fate in the troubles of the older couple.

Reality Check

Ellen Craft (1826-1891) and William Craft (1824-1900)
Ellen Craft was a light-skinned African American slave woman who helped her husband escape from slavery by passing as white. Her husband William wrote an autobiographical slave narrative that described their dramatic escape.

They traveled by public transportation from their home in Georgia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, staying in hotels along the way.

Ellen Craft was born in Clinton Georgia to a biracial slave woman and her master. She was so light-skinned that she was often mistaken for a member of her father’s white family. At age 11, she was given as a wedding gift to daughter who lived in Macon. There she met William and married him in 1846. Together they devised their escape plan— to pose as a white slaveholder with his slave.

Because a white woman would not have traveled alone with a male slave, Ellen had to pretend to be not only white but a man. She cut her hair, changed her walk, and wrapped her jaw in bandages to disguise her lack of a beard. To hide her illiteracy, she wrapped her right arm in a sling to have a ready excuse for being unable to sign papers. She explained the bandages by claiming to be an invalid traveling north to receive medical care. They traveled this way from Georgia to Pennsylvania by train, steamer, and ferry without being discovered, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1848.

In Philadelphia they befriended William Lloyd Garrison and then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they traveled as anti-slavery lecturers. They fled to England in 1850, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1868, following the Civil War, they returned to the United States and settled near Savannah, Georgia. They farmed a cotton and rice plantation and attempted to start a school. But financial debts from the plantation and hostility from white neighbors forced them to close it. Ellen Craft died in 1891. William moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1900.

(Source: Africa Online,

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.


We’ll Raise de Roof To-Night

We'll Raise de Roof Tonight

We'll Raise de Roof Tonight

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

Title of Song:     We’ll Raise De Roof To-Night

Composer:          Wheeler, J. W.

Illustrator:         Cinthy Johnson

Publisher:           Blair & Lydon

Year & Place:    1884; Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                 Music B-167

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:    hasm.b0167

Basic Description

The image here shows four men rowing a small boat close by an isolated wooden house.  While the viewer is unable to see what lies behind the dwelling, its seems that the land on which the house sits constitutes its own island.  Another boat leans against the shore in front of several trees on the left side of the building while a full-moon lights the night sky.  Bright windows indicate that there are other light on or candles burning.  There are no other signs, however, of human presence.  Each of the four men in the boat has a distinct posture.  Rowing the boat on the far left, one male sharply reclines with his face aimed directly at the sky.  Another male in the center languidly plays a banjo while a character to his right pushes his oar through with the water with his feet up.  Finally, piercing the calm water is a large frog.

Personal Description

The figures in this image look as though they are inebriated or altered state of being.  And they’re solemn movement though the water stands in stark contrast to the title of the music which, indicates a raucous celebration.  What both suggest however is a break moment of quotidian activities.  Still, it seems as though the illustration is meant to stand apart from its accompanying music.  And its visual strategy and subject matter stand in an ambiguous space with the potential for transgression or capitulation.

Reality Check

Lewis Hayden, 1811 - 1889

Lewis Hayden was one of Boston’s most visible and militant African American abolitionists. He was born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. His first wife, Esther Harvey, and a son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who in turn sold them into the deep south. Hayden was never able to discover their ultimate whereabouts. Eventually, Hayden was remarried to a woman named Harriet Bell and they escaped with their son Joseph to Canada in 1844, and then to Detroit in 1845.

The Hayden family made their way to Boston by January 1846. Lewis ran a clothing store and quickly became a leader in the black community. In 1850, the Haydens moved into the house at 66 Phillips Street. The Hayden’s routinely cared for self-emancipated African Americans at their home, which served as a boarding house. Records from the Boston Vigilance Committee indicate that scores of people received aid and shelter at the Hayden home between 1850 and 1860. Lewis Hayden was one of the men who helped rescue Shadrach Minkins from federal custody in 1851 and he played a significant role in the attempted rescue of Anthony Burns. Hayden also contributed money to John Brown, in preparation for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.

William and Ellen Craft were among Lewis and Harriet Hayden’s most famous boarders. The Crafts escaped from slavery by riding a passenger train to the north. Lewis Hayden was determined to fight for their protection. Hayden threatened that two kegs of gun powder were kept near the entryway of his home. Should slave catchers come and attempt to reclaim their “property,” Hayden would sooner have blown up the house than surrender the Crafts.

During the Civil War, Lewis Hayden worked as a recruiter for the 54th Regiment. Later he served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and worked for the Massachusetts Secretary of State. Lewis Hayden died on April 7, 1889.

(Source: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior;

Kingdom Coming

Kingdom Coming

Kingdom Coming

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

Title of Song:     Kingdom Coming

Composer:         Bryant, Dan

Publisher:         Charles Magnus & Co

Year & Place:   New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:               Bsvg 301458

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  bsvg.301458

Basic Description

The image at the top of this broadside shows a male and a female of dark skin walking together arm in arm.  The man wears a straw hat, a white collared shirt and blue overalls.  His partner in this leisurely jaunt sports a long red dress, a matching straw hat and she is wrapped in a blue shawl.  For their large, rotund bodies, they are supported tenuously by unusually small feet.  The viewer is offered little specific information about their identities.  The background depicts a massive body of water littered sporadically with a large ship or a barge.  Each has tall structures and bright red flags wave from their peaks of several.  The variable shaded formations in the area of the sky and the horizon are too nebulous to certain of what they are or their function.  In pale orange there appear to be mountains, while grey and black could be smoke.  This coloring could also, however, reflect damage to the print.

Personal Description

Ambivalence and ambiguity abound in this image.   There is not enough information presented to determine the origin or destination of the ships nor the details of the cargo aboard.  The combination of the viewer’s vantage point behind the couple as well as the lack of any recognizable facial features prevent them from approaching individuality.  This suggests that the couple does not represent any specific black male or female.  In tandem with their abnormally small feet, and their large round bodies, discussed in the music’s lyrics, this piece has an element of caricature and malicious humor.  When read with the poem or song, the image might be construed as a moment of subversion in which the masters have run away in fear of the gunboats and Kingdom, or rightful order or things where anyone can take a stroll, has come.

Reality Check

One of the most remarkable exceptions is this painting by the leading mid-century figure painter Eastman Johnson.  Born in 1824 in Lovell, Maine, Eastman Johnson took to art early in life, setting up a portrait studio in Augusta when he was 18 years old. He later worked in Boston and Washington, D.C., and in 1849 traveled to Europe where he received extensive training in drawing and painting.  In 1859, Johnson opened an exhibit in New York which featured Negro Life in the South. It was a turning point in his career — one which would lead to his becoming, for many years, the foremost genre painter in the United States.

During and even immediately after the Civil War, very few American artists undertook direct representations of the catastrophic conflict or of the experience of the enslaved African Americans whose plight it decided. He claimed to have based the subject on an actual event he had witnessed near the Manassas, Virginia, battlefield on March 2, 1862, just days before the Confederate stronghold was ceded to Union forces. This painting, A Ride for Liberty depicts a black family fleeing toward freedom. It is based on an incident which Johnson witnessed during the Civil War battle of Manassas.  The mother, holding a small child in her arms, looks back apprehensively for possible pursuers.  In this powerfully simplified composition, a family of fugitive slaves charges for the safety of Union lines in the dull light of dawn. The absence of white figures in this liberation subject makes it virtually unique in American art of the period—these African Americans are the independent agents of their own freedom. Perhaps owing to the exceptional daring of the subject, Johnson appears never to have exhibited this work.


The Plantation Galop

Plantation Galop

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

Title of Song:  Plantation Galop

Composer:  Coote, Charles

Lithographer:  Sinclair, T.

Publisher:  Lee & Walker

Year & Place:  Between 1856 and 1867, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #880; 1-2

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: n0880

Basic Description
Three figures dance in a moonlit grove. One taps a tambourine with his head thrown back. He pays no mind to the man and woman flirting around him. The woman turns away from the other man’s leering advances, yet thrusts her hip out, happily fueling his attention. The movements of the men are loose, lanky, and uninhibited. All three figures are narcotized by something, whether it be music and dance, sexual desire, or the possession of sexual power. Color enhances this narcotic ambiance. A psychedelic coral haze fades into pink and then blue,  suspending the dancers in a perpetual sunset. Golden ferns frame them, making their space mysterious and tropical. The highly unnatural patches of bright moonlight on the figures suggest the presence of the supernatural.

Personal Description
Like the illustrations for “Plantation Dance; Burlesque”  this lithograph reinforces the myth that slaves on southern plantations easily forget daily their struggles in music and dance. With wild, unnatural colors and uncanny flashes of moonlight, this illustration depicts the transformation from day to night, into an ecstatic catharsis. Once again, the plantation becomes a fantastic, pastoral space for the exceptional black body; exceptional in its capacity for transformation, escapism, and transcendence. Even the Victorian cotton tufts framing the name of the composer at the bottom lend to the mystique.

Reality Check

francis b. johnson

Chamber Orchestra, January 16, 1865 (from the Jackie Napolean Wilson Collection)
This quarter-plate tintype has three dated stamps on it reflecting payment of a tax that helped finance the Union side of the Civil War. This band is playing a five-string banjo, two violins, and a classical guitar. These are probably traveling musicians who would perform for audiences in private homes and theaters. African American composers may have been rare during the antebellum period in the U.S., but Francis Johnson (1792-1844) was quite successful under the circumstances. Born in Martinique, Johnson emigrated to Philadelphia around 1809. He played the Kent bugle and the violin, and wrote more than two hundred compositions of various styles, including opera music, patriotic marches, ballads, cotillions, quadrilles, and quicksteps. Johnson was one of the first African American composers to have his works published as sheet music. He was also the first African American to give public concerts and the first to participate in racially integrated concerts in the United States. He led the first American musical ensemble to present concerts abroad and introduced the promenade concert style to America.

(Source: Hidden Witness: African American Images from the Dawn of Photography to the Civil War, Jackie Napolean Wilson, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999; and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Special Collections)

Plantation Dance; Burlesque

Plantation Dance

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

Title of Song:  Plantation Dance; Burlesque

Composer:  Pattison, J.N. (John Nelson), 1845-1905

Performer: Pattison, J.N. (John Nelson), 1845-1905

Illustrator: Teller

Engraver and Lithographer: Clayton

Publisher:  C.M. Tremaine

Year & Place:  1867, New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-930

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0930

Basic Description
Two African American men prance in a bucolic setting. One plays a banjo and nimbly lifts his foot in dance.  The other skips in a sprightly, child-like way, and has an almost cherubic look. Their frolicsome poses differ greatly from the elastic, disjointed maneuvers of T.D. Rice’s “Jumping Jim Crow.” A Big House and what appear to be slave quarters or barn in the backdrop are visible reminders of toil and suffering, but the structures appear flat, as if part of a stage set. Their diminished presence suggests that this enchanted moment of dance and music is an absorbing escape for its participants. But the viewer can see how compromised and regulated this moment is, allowable only because it is under surveillance. There is a sense of enclosure and lock-down; the barn-like structure visible between the men links them as figures but also circumscribes them. A mass of what could be brambles limits their movements to the right of the frame. The men’s clothing–the billowy shirt and tall boots of the childlike man in particular–could equally place them in seventeenth-century Western Europe as in the antebellum South. The use of the word “Burlesque” in the song title plays in to this pretension; as a form of theater, burlesque was linked to Victorian popular culture and renditions of Shakespeare’s plays in a burlesque style.

Personal Description
The social life of African American slaves is romanticized; it is made to appear so rewarding that the oppression and sorrow of slavery is just a side note next to all the gaiety. Although the illusion relies on the association of African American slaves with some positive traits (artistic talents and agility), it also suggests that they are childlike and see their surroundings through an Arcadian lens. The title of the song and the use of the word “burlesque,” associated with comedic theater, makes light of the brutal conditions of slave life in a vulgar and abusive way. It is damaging and unethical because it minimizes and downplays the effects of a grossly unjust system. This imagery converts this injustice into a comedic form of entertainment for popular consumption, therefore perpetuating the impulse to dismiss or ignore the conditions of slave life.

Reality Check

Charles L. Reason (1818-1893)
Charles Lewis Reason was born July 21, 1818 in New York City to West Indies immigrants Michiel and Elizabeth Reason. Charles attended the African Free School along with his brothers Elmer and Patrick. An excellent student in mathematics, Reason became an instructor in 1832 at the school at age fourteen, receiving a salary of $25 a year. He used some of his earnings to hire tutors to improve his knowledge. Later, he decided to enter the ministry but was rejected because of his race by the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal church in New York City. Reason rejected such “sham Christianity” and resigned in protest from St. Philip’s Church, the congregation sponsoring his application. Undaunted by Episcopal racism, he studied next at McGrawville College in McGraw, New York.

Reason aided in drafting a call to the first New York State Convention of Negroes in 1840 and advocated in New York City a manual-labor school to provide training in the industrial arts. He created a normal (teaching) school as a remedy to the charge that black teachers were inefficient and incompetent. He decided to pursue a career in teaching, believing strongly that education was the best means for black advancement.

In 1849 Reason became the first African American to hold a professorship at a predominantly white American college when he was hired as professor of belles lettres, Greek, Latin, and French and adjunct professor of mathematics at the integrated New York Central College in McGrawville (Cortland County), New York only to resign in 1852 in order to become the first principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (1852-56) [now Cheyney University of PA].  In 1873 he headed the successful movement to outlaw segregation in New York schools.

When Reason resigned in 1892, he held the longest tenure in the school system.
Reason was also active politically throughout his life. He was committed to the antislavery cause and worked unceasingly for improvement of black civil rights.

Source:, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, Mathematics Department, State University of New York at Buffalo