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March 2, 2021

Portraits of Rebecca Huger, a Young White Slave Girl of New Orleans From the 1860s

In 1863, the Union military (specifically the Department of the Gulf under Maj. Gen. N.P. Banks), the American Missionary Association, and the National Freedmen’s Relief Association cooperated in a joint effort to provide funds for schools for freed slave children in Louisiana. To this end, they arranged for a series of photographs of slave children from New Orleans with ‘white’ features and tours with these children. A new photographic medium, cartes de visites, allowed images of the children to be sold both as a fundraising device and to buoy up support for the ongoing war.

To appeal to the white middle class in the North, the children were photographed as in typical middle class family portraits. Although several of the children were age 6 or 7, the one of whom most cdvs have survived is Rebecca Huger, a young New Orleanian of about age 11. Rebecca was photographed in numerous poses and clothes and most of the photographs with several children include Rebecca.

Rebecca Huger was the daughter of John M. Huger, a Commercial Merchant in New Orleans before the Civil War. She was one of 17 house slaves owned by Mr. Huger. Harper’s Weekly wrote about Rebecca, “To all appearance, she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood.” Harper’s Weekly editors explained that as “the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations, they are as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children.” In the few months during which she has been at school she has learned to read well, and writes as neatly as most children of her age.

The back of some of these photos reads, “Nett proceeds from the sale of these photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the Department of the Gulf.” This refers to the National Freedmen’s Relief Association who sold these photos for 25 cents to pay for teachers and supplies in Louisiana.

Some authors have suggested that the organizers of the fundraising campaign thought that Northerners would give more generously at the sight of young ‘white’ slaves. Others, however, feel that Rebecca’s age and demeanor evoked for Northern viewers the “fancy girls” that would be sold in the New Orleans slave market and become concubines. The photographs seemed to say that slavery could threaten even the white population.

(Photos: Library of Congress)


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