Setting a Dream in Motion: Reflections on The 2021 “Red Road” National Story Pole Journey

Carving is the result of dream, a vision, or a spiritual message”
-Pauline Hillaire, Lummi historian and story-teller

In July 2021 the “Red Road to DC” project traveled across the country to present the Biden Administration with a twenty-four foot carved story pole created by members of House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation. Visiting sacred Native sites and environmentally endangered locales, from Bears Ears National Monument to the point where the Dakota Access Pipeline crosses the Missouri River, the pole was greeted and touched by hundreds of Native and non-Native supporters. Their combined energies, charging and recharging this object, helped, we hope, to remind the administration of its sacred obligations to honor treaty rights with tribal nations, to safeguard biodiversity and environmental sustainability here and abroad, and to uphold human rights.

(A brief video on the Red Road journey is visible at:

Of the many extraordinary things about this pole, I am most fascinated by a dream that it carried within it.

For the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, carving has long been bound up with dreams and revelatory visions. Animals and spiritual beings carved in masks and story poles (sometimes known as “totem poles”) are often inspired by dream-visions given to the carver, a gift from the ancestors or other spiritual beings. Through the carved object, the dream is allowed to flourish and enter into the minds and souls of other persons, near and far, through masked performances, through towering story poles, and through gifts presented in potlatch or other ceremonial events. Perhaps a dream-gift most fully realizes its potential when it is shared and made accessible to many other people, binding them to one another, to nature’s beings, and to the mysterious forces of the invisible world. Dream images thus may inspire and generate further dream visions, which are given form through more acts of creation, imagination, and reciprocal exchange. Carving, in effect, helps set dreams in motion and in so doing helps transform people’s minds and hearts as it builds community between living people, the ancestors, and the spiritual energies coursing through the natural world.

Many visionary dreams were evoked in the Red Road pole, which journeyed from the Lummi lands in northwestern Washington state to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. At its is base we behold the waters that sustain life for all things, the very waters that are imperiled by extractive fossil fuel industries and associated petrochemical complexes, The figure of Peyote Woman reminds us of the visionary quests enabled by the sacred plant of peyote, which can help heal wounded psyches and communities. Peyote Woman is flanked by seven carved tears that bear testimony to the seven generations during which Native peoples have suffered under the depredations of settler colonialism. We glimpse some of the current nightmares that emerge from this long, painful history, including traces of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the predicament of detained children, many of Mesoamerican indigenous heritage, held in immigration cells. We also see important animal spirits that are at times glimpsed in dream vision, including a climbing bear and the great head of a diving eagle. At the pole’s apex is a spherical rendition of the full moon, within which is seen a crouching Native American man in front of a sacred fire, perhaps embarking on a vision quest that will yield further dream images.

One dream associated with the pole is particularly rich and moving. In his artist’s statement, master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James’s describes a dream he experienced late in the production process of this remarkable object:

I was with my maternal-side cousin, we were traveling in his truck, and making a short stop. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window and could see it was windy. As dreams are, I could see the waves of the wind. At that moment, a single Eagle Feather came traveling, upright, in the wind, like it was dancing. My cousin said, take it. It danced right to my window and I was getting ready to take it from the wind, as my cousin said, “Open your window and take it!” I replied, “I am trying to get the window down now.” I woke up. I call this dream, “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather.” At this time, all the totem pole figures were completely added to the Sacred Sites Totem Pole. But, there was one small, mid-section site on the pole (right side), that was sanded but not carved (not even gouged like the same spot on the opposite side) in any fashion. This “feather with the visible wind waves” was carved in that spot. To me, this will always be the “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather” Totem Pole.”

The dream in the truck would seem to be anticipatory, a kind of dress rehearsal for the great cross-continental journey the pole was about to embark upon. The Lummi are people of the sea, deeply attuned to the waves, winds, and currents of the Salish Sea, in which reside the orcas, their “relatives under the waters.” Thus, it seems appropriate that the dreamer apprehends within the wind the pulsating energies of waves. From this wind, as he prepares to set forth with his great gift of the pole, the dreamer himself receives a gift, a single dancing feather. Not coincidentally, this is the feather of an eagle, which bears great significance in Native American spirituality. The Eagle, of course, also appears on the Great Seal of the United States, and is thus an appropriate emissary in a mission that moves from Native America to the U.S. Government.

It seems all the more fitting that a space was left empty for the carved feather mid- way along the pole, on the right side. Like all significant gifts, the pole contains within itself the relationship between giver and receiver, in this instance between Native peoples and the Federal Government. What better mediator, halfway between the pole’s base and apex, than the feather of a bird that is sacred to both donor and recipient, carved into the right side, a side associated for Lummi peoples with life and enduring vitality?

The wind and wave energies that power the light feather, gifted in the dream, perhaps helped launch the large pole on its journey from one coast to another, as the carved object prepared to take wing across the continent, traversing a multitude of sacred places and encountering many Native and non-Native supporters, who would bless the pole by touching it. High-flying eagles, gifted with extraordinary vision, perceive no borders on the land below them; perhaps the single, solitary feather, imbued with the forces of wind and eagle, will help convey to its intended recipient the gift of seeing a borderless world, a vast web of life in all its infinite interconnections.

I can’t help but speculate about the fact that the truck was being driven by the carver’s maternal cousin. Traditionally, men of the Lummi and other indigenous peoples of the northwest coast at times marry women who come from their mother’s side of the family.. Might the feather dancing down from the wind towards the maternal cousin’s truck thus be a kind of “spirit-wife” for the dreamer, the very essence of gifting itself, coming from the invisible world into the visible world? What better thing, as an ephemeral bond between the spirit world and the mortal world, and between Mother Earth to her children? What better gift to enliven the story pole in the very final moments of its creation, as it becomes a shining beacon, destined to blaze the path, the Red Road, from sea to shining sea?

Opening the Window

A final thought. We are often strangely paralyzed in dreams, knowing we ought to do something but incapable of fulfilling that imperative. So I suspect we all recognize the dreamer’s frustrating predicament, being told by his cousin to open the truck window to receive the gift, but not quite being able to roll the window down. Like the truck, the dream too is stopped in place, and he simply can’t grasp the offered feather, which is tantalizingly close.

It isn’t easy to receive a gift, especially one of spiritual and artistic inspiration. Perhaps that is the point: the dreamer can’t at this moment seize the feather, because it isn’t yet his to take. He can only come to grasp it later, after he has awakened and carved it on the pole, completing the sacred object. Until that moment, there is something standing between him and the alluring image of the feather dancing in the wind waves. The window can only be opened, and the feather can only be properly held, once the dreamer awakes, and undertakes the inspired act of artistic creation, finally bringing out a shape whose energies may have been incipient in the western cedar log all along.

There’s another thing about vehicle windows, in our strange era. For nearly two years, air, which ought to be experienced as the unequivocal gift of breath and life, has become a source of persistent anxiety for all of us. How many times since March 2020, have we wondered about whether or not to roll down a car window when people are standing or walking nearby: do we risk breathing in the virus, or panicking them that they might catch something from us? We have all been prisoners in one way or another, condemned for an indefinite sentence to view the world through windows, longing to embrace fully the great world beyond, as we mourn the many thousands gone. (As the Red Road to DC was being planned in spring 2021, we all anticipated a grand opening up of the world; after successive waves and variants, this initial optimism has of course been tempered.)

The Red Road was, to be sure, an emergency mission, a journey to help save Mother Earth at what might be the moment of her greatest peril. It is serious business, and as the seven tears carved in the pole remind us, there is a long history of dispossession and injustice being witnessed here. Yet the Red Road was also an occasion of extraordinary exhilaration, opening up all of us to re-connection with other people, other places, the glories of nature’s beings and landscape, and the rich spiritual traditions of Native America. The pole carried with it, as well, the promise of a new administration and the delight and pride in knowing that Debra Haalland had been confirmed as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Like all great gifts, the pole traversing the Red Road blazed a path to a new future. Many dreams may finally be brought to life. After a long period of confinement, of only knowing the world through TV screens, computer screens, smart phone windows, windows, and windshields, the activists sought to travel out and through the world, to grasp and breath in physical substance, to experience once more the authentic and the unexpected. We finally get to roll down the windows, and race down the highway, waves of wind blowing over us, our faces streaked with tears—tears that just might, be in this long-dreamt of moment, our shared tears of joy.

Race and Gender in de Benabarre’s Saint Michael Angel (c. 1470)

Recently my Decolonizing Museums seminar (Boston University) had a fascinating visit with the interpretive staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The team shared their innovative approach to engaging visitors with Pedro García de Benabarre’s magnificent painting Saint Michael Archangel (c. 1470), which hangs over a large fireplace in the second floor Tapestry Room. I must admit that I had never really looked closely at this startling and compelling work.

Pedro García de Benabarre (active Catalonia, 1455 – 1480)
Saint Michael Archangel, about 1470

In their excellent website text and online audio guide, the Gardner’s interpretive team offers a layered approach to the painting, starting with a conventional art historical appreciation, explaining the various elements of the image: Archangel Michael seated on a throne in Heaven weighs souls (two white clothed small beings on scales) and subdues with his lance two-faced Lucifer, who lays prostrate on the tiled floor. (The catalogue notes, “This painting was originally a side panel of a large altarpiece dedicated to John the Baptist, installed in the church of Sant Joan del Mercat in Lleida, Catalonia.:)

The visitor next accesses a thoughtful extended audio commentary by multimedia artist Elisa Hamilton, part of her 2019 recorded artist’s walk through the Palace galleries. Hamilton begins by noting that she has long been drawn to the painting; towards the end she notes that as she came to learn more about the work, she was troubled, especially as a person of color, by the work’s “ugly historical trope,” associating evil with black skin

Following our class discussion of the image, I have been pondering the imagery of Lucifer as multi-faced and black-skinned. Dante’s The Inferno, although written around 1320, was first published in 1472, so it is possible that de Benabarre was influenced by Dante’s vision of the Devil as possessing three mouths of sharp teeth devoted to chewing on sinners. The association of the demonic with blackness or darkness can be traced back to antiquity. In the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 contrasts the lightness of Christ with the darkness of the demon Belial (at times taken as a synonym for Satan). Fra Angelico’s painting The Last Judgement, created in 1431, four decades before the de Benabarre image, depicts the Devil as black skinned, with white horns, munching on his victims in a boiling cauldron.

Africa Connections?

Having said that, it seems likely that the specific figuration of Satan by de Benabarre is related to the Iberian peninsula’s complex relationship with African-descent populations across the centuries. John Thornton notes that under the Almoravids, West Africans from the polities of Tarkur and Ghana (corresponding, roughly speaking, to the area of modern Senegal) were incorporated into Muslim armies in Iberia. Israel Burshatin (1985) in his exploration of the often subtle and complex depictions of Moors in Medieval Iberian letters, references the overt equation of Moorishness, blackness, and the Devil in the 13th century Castillian epic poem, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez (written c, 1250-1266), which recounts the Count of Castille Fernán González’s campaign against Moorish adversaries, described as: “Uglier than Satan and his conventicle [coven] combined / When he comes out of hell, dirty sooty”” (Footnote 1)

By 1462, Portuguese slave traders were established in Seville, and by the 1470s, when de Benabarre created the work, African slaves were increasingly common throughout Christian Spanish realms. In 1460, Portuguese had landed on the shores of what is now Sierra Leone. By 1471, the Portuguese had a presence between the mouths of the Ankobra and Volta rivers, a region they termed A Mina (“the mine”), today’s Elmina, in the area that would be known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana; the next year, Fernão do Pó landed on the island that would bear his name, now known as Bioko in the vicinity of modern day Cameroon. It seems likely that de Benabarre had heard or read reports of extremely dark skinned African people, even if he had not met any directly. Satan’s upward thrusting fangs, perhaps modeled on the tusks of a wild boar, his webbed feet, tiny tail, and sharp talons presumably signal the imputed animality of Africans in Christian Iberian imagination of the period.

It would appear that de Benabarre has chosen to depict Lucifer in a rather sexually ambiguous manner, with curving, alluring hips, perhaps all the better to seduced wayward souls. In contrast, Michael’s elongated phallic lance plunges from between his legs towards Satan’s midsection, in a way that might signal both domination over and disambiguation of an inter-sexed being. All of this would be consistent with emerging 15th century Christian conceptions of reimposing gendered dichotomies on the ostensibly sexually ambiguous bodies of non Christians, on the eve of the completion of the Reconquista and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

I am equally fascinated by Satan’s second face, a large orange visage that stretches from the demon’s upper torso to his groin area. Speculatively, might the image have been inspired by a masked form of a West African masquerade, potentially encountered by Portuguese explorers in coastal regions? I am reminded a bit of Temne masks, from the region that is now northwestern Sierra Leone, where Portuguese sailors did in fact land during the 1470s. It is also possible that the principal inspiration is from grimacing Catalan and other Iberian festival masks (which may themselves have emerged out a long history of trans-Mediterranean cultural exchanges.)

In any event, I do wonder if the visual organization of the painting, with the triumphant white Archangel high above the prone dark Devil, might have geographic referents, evoking growing (or hoped for) Christian Iberian economic and military power over Muslim states and over African polities. It is possible that the curving shape of Lucifer’s body was inspired by the North African coastline, which was depicted in early maps of period, such Grazioso Benincasa’s 1482 chart (below). Alternately. Satan’s body might signal the West African coastline north of the equator, with which Christian Iberians in the 1470s were increasingly familiar. Perhaps the gold with which Michael’s breastplate is adorned signals the gold wealth of the Akan region, with which Portuguese and Spaniards of the 1470s were deeply fascinated. In that sense, this image of a resplendent white Christian saint directing a lance towards the dark figure below, may be said to anticipate the coming era of vast Iberian extraction of mineral and agricultural wealth as well as human capital, from West and Central Africa.

Grazioso Benincasa. Biblioteca Universitaria, Bolonia.1482.


1, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez, ed. C. Carroll Marden [Baltimore, 1904], p. 56, st. 11. 3-4., quoted in Burshatin 1985: fn26. Burshatin suggests that the the imagery in the Poema, unusual for Iberian writing of the period, echoes the racialist figurations of the French epic poem Chanson de Roland.


Israel Burshatin,1985, The Moor in the Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1, “Race,” Writing, and Difference. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 98-118.

For an overview of emerging Medieval depictions of Satan, see Marina Montesano, Horns, Hooves, and Hell: Images of the Devil in Medieval Times. National Geographic, 2 November 2018.

Panegyric Imagery in Zanele Muholi’s “Somnyama Ngonyama”

Zanele Muholi’s photographic series of digitally altered self-portraits “Somnyama Ngonyama” (translated by the artist as “Hail, the Dark Lioness”) consists of carefully posed images taken in locations around the world, through which the artist-activist gives voice to a vast number of black South Africans, primarily LGBTQ, long relegated by dominant social institutions to the shadows and the depredations of violence.

The works, exhibited in numerous galleries and collected in a striking monograph, have received extensive critical and scholarly attention. I have been especially impressed by Nomusa Makhubu’s essay “Performing Blackface: Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama,” (OnCurating v.49 ) which perceptively unpacks elements of parodic inversion and queer critique of colonial racialist minstrelsy imagery in these compelling, disturbing images.

In this post, I’d like to build on Makhuba’s discussion in light of my interest in ritual poetics among Nguni-speaking speaking peoples. I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which Muholi’s creatively plays on the symbolic repertoire of izibongo royal praise poetry in isiZulu and other Nguni languages.

As Makhuba notes, the title of the series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” could be literally translated from isiZulu as “Dark Lion.” Why does the artist insist on the English translation, “Hail, the Dark Lioness,” emphasizing praise and rendering the noun female? David Coplan notes that in contemporary Zulu networks, the term “hail” is at times used to signal gender and queer inclusivity. Beyond this, the term “hail” would appear to index the long tradition of royal praise poetry in Nguni-speaking societies, in which the sovereign is at times characterized as a lion, with the royal-coded term “Ngonyama” favored over the ordinary isiZulu term for lion, “ibhubesi. ” Hence, the izibongo praise poem of King Shaka: “UyiSilo! UyiNgwe! UyiNgonyama!” (You are a wild animal! A leopard! A lion!) (Cope 1968, 108-9, also quoted in Gunner 1984: 289). The term is also used in one of the most widely heard (if not universally understood) lyrics in the world, the first line of “The Circle of Life, “ the opening number of The Lion King, “ Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”, to which the chorus responds, “Sithi uhm ingonyama”, a call-response sequence which may be translated as “Behold, a lion [king]’ is coming, father/Oh yes, it is a lion [king].”

During my fieldwork in Ngoni communities in eastern Zambia, royal praise singers (iizimbongi) with whom I consulted often emphasized that their work was “heavy” and ritually dangerous. The pangyerics that they perform in rapid, fierce, staccato rhythms metaphorically model the king as a lion or leopard, who pounces upon, tears apart and “stabs” at is victims. Explained one senior poet, “When I sing this way, I become like the king, but I can be a victim at any moment of his rage, and of the anger of all the kings who came before him.” Another explained, “When I speak, I feel every wound that pierced the king and his forefathers, but I am unbowed and so we rise to victory.” To call up the most potent aspects of the sovereign is to unleash violent energies, that condense and make visible the king’s multidimensional status, hated and stalked by his enemies, even as he rises as a predatory war leader who sheds his blood on behalf of his people, striking down external and internal adversaries, seen and unseen.

The Nguni sovereign traverses the ambiguous terrain between this world and the other world of the shades, in ways that are necessary for cosmological reproduction yet tinged with destructive potential. At the climactic moment of the Swazi incwala ceremony of first fruits, the monarch manifest himself as the monstrous creature of the bush, “Silo,” who bites (luma) and tosses a first fruit so as to expel the pollution of the previous year, paving the way for safe consumption of the new year’s produce by the entire polity. At an early moment of the ceremony, a bovine is ritually slaughtered on the sovereign’s behalf, allowing him to enter into a “dark” phase of existence, from which he and the kingdom may be triumphantly reborn anew. Praise singers, it is said, embody these dangerous transitions, moving across thresholds between life and death, between being predators and being themselves predated upon.

Speculatively, Zanele Muholi moves across a comparably ambiguous terrain in this series. The artist embraces deep blackness with defiant pride, with full knowledge of the enormous dangers posed to persons of color in general and queer persons of color in particular. Rather like a royal praise singer, Muholi fully embodies the position of the exalted being they seek to honor, in all of its rich contradictions, as a locus of danger and assertiveness, even while, as a witness to that glory, they assume positions of intense vulnerability.

The artist’s translation of Ngonyama as “Lioness” may also emerge, in part, out of the deep cosmological structure of Nguni kingship. There’s considerable evidence that precolonial Nguni sovereignty was “diarchic,” founded on complex co-rule between the (often secluded) Queen Mother and the more visible male king, with the female sovereign responsible for the periodic rebirth and growth of the land, and the male monarch especially associated with war, conquest, and blood-letting in sacrifice, hunting, and the upholding of legal principles. Among the best known queen mothers in Nguni history was Ntombasi of the Ndandwe kingdom, who appears to have been a predominant co-ruler with her son Zwide, before the kingdom was routed by the forces of Shaka Zulu, whose mother Nandi herself wielded considerable influence prior to her death.

It may be that in the Somnyama Ngonyama series, Zanele Muholi is similarly embodying a diarchic or multi-gendered continuum of sovereignty, which like the moon itself waxes and wanes over the course of the annual cycle. For a year, the photographer shot a self portrait each day, depicting the great range of dangers facing black South Africans and queer persons, across a range of gendered positions. (The series is ongoing.) “Phindile I” (Paris, 2014) shows their body arranged in the odalisque postion classically used to depict inmates of a royal seraglio. “ Somnyama I, (Paris, 2014),” seems to depict the figured associated with high ranking warrior status. In “Zamile (KwaThema, 2016O,” Muholi appears as a male novice undergoing initiation, wrapped in a blanket. In “Thulani II (Parktown, 2015)” they wear headgear reminiscent of a miner’s helmet, honoring the dozens of strikers killed in the 2012 Marikana massacre. In contrast, .“Thuleleni, (Amsterdam, 2018)” presents the artist in a ruff collar reminiscent of the wealthy Dutch merchants who oversaw the colonial project.

The net effect is to interpolate the “visual activist” Muholi into a dizzying range of embodied subject positions, taking themselves and their audience through an odyssey of pain, vulnerability, and loss, from which they emerge fierce, unbowed, and ultimately victorious. Such is the journey of the Nguni imbongi (royal praise singer), who takes on the suffering, the power, and the danger of the one who is praised, in order to channel creative flows of energy that summon up and reconstitute the sovereign social order. As Muholi hails this hybrid, multi-gendered dark lioness, that sovereign order is radically restructured, giving birth to a better world that fully encompasses and affirms those who were, for so long, consigned to the outer limits of the social.


Cope, T. Ed.),1968. Izibongo: Zulu Praise Poems. Oxford, Clarendon Press,

Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne, 1984. Ukubonga Nezibongo : Zulu praising and praises., PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies University of London


Cooper Gallery (Harvard University) virtual tour

Guardian Arts and Design

Tate Retrospective

Reflections on Creek Freedmen and Legacies of Enslavement at Emory University

Recently, I gave an invited presentation at the symposium “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism, and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice” (September 29-October 1, 2021) at Emory University. The gathering sought to draw attention to two critical aspects of Emory’s early history, the enslavement of African Americans, whose coerced labor enabled the first three decades of Emory’s College existence, and the coerced alienation of indigenous lands, upon which Emory College and its environs were constructed from 1836 onwards, and upon which the Atlanta (Clifton Road) Emory campus was constructed from 1915 onwards.

The panels and presentations were fascinating and illuminating, highlighting the unresolved legacies of the removal of Muscogee (Creek) communities from the lands that later became Newton and DeKalb counties, where Emory’s Oxford and Atlanta campuses are now located, as well as the historical implications of enslavement, and the long-term disavowals of slavery, on the Emory campuses. The conference keynote address, “Universities as Instruments of Colonialism,” by Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) brilliantly articulated the fundamental bond between enslavement and indigenous land dispossession in the foundational histories of American universities prior to the Civil War.

My presentation, “Families Divided: The Human Costs of Enslavement at Emory”, developed themes in my 2011 book, The Accidental Slaveowner, and my more recent research on enslavement on the Atlanta Emory university grounds. I concentrated on the enslaved families associated with Emory who were torn apart through slave sales, estate distributions, gifts, and sexual violence. (See the presentation on YouTube at

(The whole symposium is accessible at

As part of my talk, i emphasized that the Oxford African American community, whose ancestors had been enslaved at and around Emory College, has remained deeply interested in the stories of their indigenous ancestors. Many trace their lineages in Oxford back to enslaved Native American individuals held by Emory’s leaders, including Cornelius Robinson, owned by Emory’s president Alexander Means, and Angeline Sims, owned by Richard Sims, a founding member of the Emory Board of Trustees. Elderly community members recall that Afro-indigenous communities, related to these enslaved indigenous persons, continued to reside in Newton County, along the Alcovy River and Turner Lake, into the early 20th century, until they were forced off their lands by the county’s white leadership.

I further noted that black elders in Newton County have long been deeply interested in the fate of the Creek Freedmen, descendants of persons of African descent who were enslaved by Muscogee (Creek) slaveowners, within Georgia and Alabama, and then later transported along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s to Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma. As chronicled in Gary Zellar’s 2007 monograph, African Creeks, and many other studies, Muscogee Creek communities were deeply divided between Union and Confederate partisans during the Civil War, although the Creek Nation itself was formally allied with the Confederacy, as were the other “Civilized Nations.” Slavery in the Creek Nation only ended in 1866, with the arrival of the U.S. Army in the region. When the Creek Nation signed a treaty with the United States in 1866, those individuals of African descent who had been enslaved by Muscogee, known as the Creek Freedmen, were guaranteed citizenship within the Creek Nation. Then, in 1979, the Creek leadership effectively expelled or dis-enrolled nearly all of those persons of African or enslaved descent. The Creek Freedmen for the past four decades have been struggling for the treaty to be honored, and for their citizenship status within the Creek Nation to be restored.

This issue has again risen to national prominence, in the wake of the 2020 McGirt Decision, which is anchored in the 1866 Treaty. Many Freedmen note that many Creek leaders have strongly supported the decision, which among other things holds that tribal reservations in Oklahoma were never de-established, and that native sovereignty must be reasserted in multiple domains, yet these same leaders have argued that other parts of the treaty, establishing the tribal citizenship rights of Creek Freedmen, as tribal members of African descent, can be ignored. Partly in light of McGift, Deb Haaland, the Secretary of Interior, has publicly spoken on the profound racial injustice of denying tribal citizenship rights to the Freedmen. The House Financial Affairs committee, chaired by Maxine Waters (D-CA) is likely to specify in the reauthorized Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA), that tribes must guarantee full tribal citizenship rights to Freedmen before federal housing assistance can be disbursed.

I was thus perplexed that there was little discussion of the Creek Freedmen issue at the Emory symposium. Muscogee (Creek) representatives were invited to participate in the conference, offering blessings and sharing accounts of educational initiatives at the College of the Muscogee Nation. The African American Oxford descendants and I were deeply moved by the blessings offered by the Creek Mekko (ritual specialist and ordained elder ) Chebon Kernell during the conference. Yet sadly. no Creek Freedmen, however, were invited to participate. In their opening and closing framing remarks, the symposium’s organizers did not address the continued injustice of racial apartheid within the Creek Nation, or the painful legacies of enslavement within Muscogee (Creek) communities. As a prominent Creek Freedman activist later noted, the university leadership vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; why is the same university’s leadership not protesting, or even acknowledging, structures of racial injustice within the Creek Nation, as the university seeks to nurture long-term connections with tribal actors and institutions?

This silence is all the more surprising given that in March 2021 Emory’s Carlos Museum hosted a remarkably penetrating forum on Creek Freedmen rights, in the wake of the McGirt Decision: The panel, organized by Craig Womack (then Emory Professor of English), included the prominent Five Nations Freedmen representative Marilyn Vann; Eli Grayson (an activist for Creek freedmen rights, who is descended from both non-African Creeks and Creek Freedmen) and attorney John Parris, who has diligently pursued Freedmen legal rights in the courts. The Emory community and symposium organizers have been well aware of the Freedmen’s struggles. Why were they, in effect, sidelined during the symposium?

I appreciate that all involved seek to honor native sovereignty and are mindful of the profound historical injustices of force indigenous removal and land alienation, which were key to the foundation of Emory, and virtually all other institutions of higher education in North America. It is vital that universities advocate for the upholding of treaty rights, which have so often been abrogated by the Federal government across the decades. Yet in this instance, the rights of the Freedmen are clearly guaranteed within the foundational 1866 treaty, so defense of the treaty (and, by extension, of McGirt) logically calls for honoring Freedmen’s tribal citizenship claims. The university, it strikes many of us, is well situated to help encourage productive dialogue between Creek leadership and Creek Freedmen, continuing in the spirit of Craig Womack’s visionary work. Craig and others have emphasized that this is a critical moment, in which the university can exercise profound ethical influence in dialogue with progressive voices within the Muscogee Creek Nation.

It is my hope that as Emory University continues to explore forms of restorative justice, in the shadow of historical crimes against enlaved and indigenous peoples, that the predicament of the Creek Freedmen is not sidelined, but is rather kept front and center as all involved seek to right historical wrongs and build, collaboratively, the beloved community.

For further reading


Chaudhuri, Jean and Joyotpaul Chaudhuri. A Sacred Path: The Way of the Muscogee Creeks. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 2001.

Womack, Craig S. Art as Performance, Story as Criticism: Reflections on Native Literary Aesthetics. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2009. (see especially his discussion of the cultural politics of the Creek Freedmen issue, pp. 95-114.)

Zellar, Gary. African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2007.

Web Resources

Austa Somvichian-Clausen. The Creek Freedmen push for indigenous rights decades after being disenfranchised. The Hill. December 7, 2020

Freedmen Claims in Relation to McGirt vs. Oklahoma/ A panel discussion on the historic 2020 Supreme Court decision. Michael G. Carlos Museum, Emory University. (Craig Womack, Marilyn Vann, Eli Grayson, John Parris). 2021

Creek Freedmen\

Craig Womack. Aestheticizing a Political Debate: Can the Creek Confederacy Be Sung Back Together? November 20, 2007, Southern Spaces

The Column in Between: Re-reading John Rogers’ “The Slave Auction” (1859)

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (1859)

Having written about reenacted slave auctions from the mid-19th century to the present (Auslander 2010; Auslander 2013; Auslander 2015), I am fascinated by John Roger’s 1859 plaster sculpture “The Slave Auction,” which the artist produced in copied format for sale during the Civil War period. Harold Holzer (2015) offers a reading of the piece in his volume The Civil War in 50 Objects. a review of works in the New York Historical Society collections. I’d like here to extend his thoughtful interpretation.

Five figures are depicted in this mass-reproduced sculptural group. Towering above the others, behind a podium, is the raised figure of the white auctioneer, his hair curled upwards, echoing the upward twist of his mustache, as if, Rogers noted, he possesses the devilish horns of “Old Nick”. To the left of the column is a striking enslaved African American man, his arms crossed defiantly, standing in classical contrapposto pose.

To the right is an enslaved woman, holding a baby to her breast, while another child clutches and hides behind her dress. The woman is depicted with notably white or European features, consistent with white abolitionists’ frequent emphasis on the near- white status of imperiled enslaved heroines. Her features also reference the theme of repeated sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women by white slaveowners, a prominent motif in abolitionist discourse of the day. The podium bears a poster with the words; “Great Sale/of/Horses, Negroes & Other/Farm Stock/ This Day at/Public Auction.”

Iconographic and Textual Sources

By 1859, Rogers would have had innumerable textual and visual models to draw upon for this work, given that the mise en scene of the slave auction had been widely favored by northern abolitionist writers and artists for decades.

Hammat Billings, The Auction Sale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852: 174

He was surely familiar with abolitionist Hammat Billings illustration, “The Auction Sale” in the second edition (1852, p. 174) of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the accompanying text, the adolescent Albert pleads without success for his purchaser to also buy his mother, from whom he is separated. In the image, the smartly dressed auctioneer towers above the enslaved chattel, who crouch in shadows. A poster is visible to the left, advertising for runaway slaves, driving home the overall theme of danger, rather as a poster is used in the Rogers sculpture to emphasize the horror of bondage.

More broadly, Rogers’ composition was likely informed by the Biblical imagery running through Stowe’s novel. Chapter 30, for example, opens with a meditation on a New Orleans slave warehouse, as diverse enslaved people are readied for the auction block:

“Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be “sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;” and that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.”

Rogers’ image similarly evokes the Gospels. Here we see a version of the Holy Family, now divided by the satanic auctioneer or slave dealer. The female figure with newborn evokes both Mary with the infant Jesus as well as the weeping Pieta. There may even be an echo of John: 19’s report that Pontius Pillate, after acquiescing to demands that Jesus be crucified, had a noticed prepared and affixed to the cross, reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Rogers’ central column, in turn, boasts the poster announcing the day’s auction, as if it too, were a cross of martyrdom.

As Holzer notes, the proximate inspiration of Rogers’ work may have been the vast slave sale of 436 enslaved people, March 2-3, 1859 conducted at the Ten Broek racecourse in Savannah, on behalf of planter Pierce Mease Butler to settle extensive debts (DeGraft-Hanson 2010). The sale was surreptitiously observed by northern journalist Mortimer Thomson, who published an expose of the auction in the New York Herald Tribune on March 9, under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Doesticks described the poignant case of the young woman Daphne, who had given birth two weeks earlier. A blanket covered her and her baby, although the prospective buyers protested that they wished to judge her uncovered limbs. Rogers may also have been influenced by Doesticks’ account of the young man Jeffrey, who pleaded in vain for his new buyer to also purchase the young woman Dorcas, whom he was in love with.

In his influential account in the Tribune, the reporter contrast the “dapper” appearance of the slave dealer Joseph Bryan, with the heart-breaking visages of those being torn asunder from friends and kin:

‘The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands.”

Rogers presumably read this widely reprinted piece, and his sculpture may well have been an effort to translate this text into sculptural form.

Rogers was perhaps also inspired by a widely-reported mock slave auction staged thirteen years earlier, by the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. In 1846 at his church in Manhattan, Rev. Beecher raised funds to secure the freedom of the sisters Mary and Emily Edmundson, who had been recaptured after the failed mass escape attempt of The Pearl in Washington DC in April 1848. Much was made at the time of the young women’s relatively light skin, which rendered them particularly sympathetic to white audiences, and the threat of sexual abuse that hung over them should they be acquired by southern slave owners. Rev. Beecher, playing the part of the southern slave auctioneer, reportedly took great pride in driving up the price offered by the congregation to redeem the two young women, who were emanicipated in November 1848.

The Central Podium

To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of Rogers’ composition is the podium at the center of the assemblage. The column provides height to the elevated auctioneer, and simultaneously dramatizes the imminent division between the man on the left and the woman and her children to the right.

Viewed from behind, the auctioneer’s lower legs emerge out the column, rather as if he were a serpentine demonic presence, slithering out of the wood, perhaps redolent of the tree in the Garden of Eden that presaged the Fall. (The bunching of his rear waistcoat may recall a devil’s tail). In contrast. the black adults’ bare feet, like the feet of hiding child, are firmly planted on the base of the auction block.

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (Collection of Historic New England)

The central flat rectangular frontage of the podium, out of which the crouched auctioneer extends, could be read as a kind of phallic presence, redolent of the Law of the Father that is about to tear asunder this small family, as well as the implied likelihood that the enslaved woman, like her enslaved foremothers, will be subjected to white male sexual predation. The auctioneer is seen in the act of bringing his gavel down upon the podium, sealing the sale that will rend the family in two. In that sense, he and the gavel could be read as castrating forms, emasculating the heroic male black figure. The flatness of the podium front could thus be read as site of absence, a terrible void effacing the natural rights of paternity. The overall gendered imagery of the grouping, after all, prioritizes the mid-19th century ideal of the family, with the black husband solitary, tall and erect, and his wife with children, and bent over in grief, much lower than the male head of the family. This “natural” family formation is just about to be violated by demonic auctioneer rising from above the victims.

Appropriately, the shaft-like podium provides a surface for the poster announcing the sale, emphasizing, in effect, white control over the written word, implying that sinful white greed and lust seek to supplant the black man’s god-given prerogatives. It is intriguing in this regard, that the folds in the black man’s breeches, over the seat of his manhood, echo the folds in the adjacent poster. Perhaps the sculptor means to imply that right (in the sense of the male hero’s virtue) will ultimately prevail over the work of the Devil, who dares to sell off in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s words, ‘the soul immortal.”

This reading would lend further support to the sense that the central wooden column, severing the victims from one another, hints at the cross itself, under which Mary cradled her martyred son. It is striking that the enslaved woman, holding the infant to her breast, rests her head, and that of the baby, upon the podium. Perhaps, this vertical space, although at the present moment an instrument of a dreadful martyrdom, hints at a coming transformation and the promise of redemption under the cross, when the faithful will all once more be united.

The Sculpture’s Afterlife

Holzer remarks that the sculptural group did not sell anywhere near as well as Rogers had anticipated. New York City shops on the eve of the Civil War were reluctant to alienate southern customers and often refused to display the work. Rogers thus hit upon the strategy of having an African American worker hawk the mass-reproduced plasters from a push cart.

One of these was purchased by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The work may have influenced Rev. Beecher in undertaking several months later, on February 6th, 1860 his most famous mock slave auction, from the pulpit of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. As I discuss in my 2013 paper, Touching the Past, through this auction a light-skinned nine-year-old enslaved girl known as Sally Maria Diggs, or “Pinky,” was redeemed for a $900 purchase price raised from the congregation. Following the precedent from his other mock auctions, Rev. Beecher intimated that were Pinky not saved from slavery, she faced a life of likely sexual servitude, and that in freeing her, the faithful were offered the opportunity to redeem themselves from sin.

Rev. Beecher famously gave to the girl an opal-studded gold ring offered by a congregation member, the writer Rose Terry, telling Pinky, “Now remember this is your freedom ring.” (In subsequent re-tellings, Rev. Beecher is said to have uttered the more dramatic phrase, “With this ring I wed thee to freedom.) Nearly six decades later, in 1927, the woman who had once been known as Pinky or Rose Terry, now known as Mrs. James Hunt, returned a ring (not, it appears, the same ring) to the Plymouth congregation, perhaps freeing herself, I have argued, from the complex and rather humiliating weight of her 1860 public redemption.

A copy of the work is in the collection of Historic New England, a gift of the founder of the organization’s forerunner, William Sumner Appleton (1874–1947), evidently in 1935. Perhaps Appleton, whose Boston family had abolitionist tendencies, had inherited the piece.


Auslander, Mark, 2011. “Holding on to Those Who Can’t be Held”: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore’s Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)

_____________2013 Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments, Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183

_____________2014. Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reeanactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres. North American Dialogue (Society for the Anthropology of North America) 17:1, pp. 1-12.

_____________ 2015. Contesting the Roadways: The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. Southern Spaces. August 2015.

______________2019. Competing Roadways, Contesting Bloodlines: Registers of Biopower at a Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. pp. 189-203. Varieties of Historical Experience. Stephen Palmie and Charles Stewart, eds. Routledge Kegan Paul.

Holzer, Harold (and the New York Historical Society). 2015. The Civil War in 50 Objects. Penguin Random House.

Dreams of a Living Landscape: Apay’uq’s painting “Anerneq”

This post continues our discussion of the work of the artist Apay’uq, who is based in the Bristol Bay region of south-eastern Alaska. (See the artist’s work on her website).

Aqay’u’s striking painting, “Anerneq (Spirit/Breath), 2020, bears the caption, “We are a part of the world, all as beings. We progress and evolve through each generation, but are expected by the spirits among us to carry on in the truest way of the human being. Respect all.

“Anerneq” (Spirit/Breath), 2020, Acrylic.

The painting is centered on an enormous, serene green figure of Mother Earth, who in this rendering is the sacred essence “Anerneq”. Anerneq is sometimes described for Yup’ik and related peoples of southwestern and western Alaska as the soul or breath of a person that may be transmitted from one generation to the next, especially through naming ceremonies.

The green being, an emanation of the living landscape itself, is surrounded by life-giving waters of a flowing river. She holds in her large green hands a dried plant of the wormwood family, used, the artist explains, as medicine or tea being, here being smudged. Blessing smoke from the smudging rises up around her, towards four unclothed children, who sit within the green banks of the river, filled with brilliant flowers redolent of the forces of new life. The artist writes that in her mind the children represent the past, present, and future of the Yup’ik people. Above the youth are distant blue mountain peaks, shaped with faces of ancestors, who gaze up a a bright orange sky that perhaps evokes sunrise and the coming of a new day. Apaqy’uq notes that in her mind the the sky kisses the faces of the ancestors.

Edward Curtis. Nunivak mask performer.

The artist further explains that the composition is inspired by the design of a traditional Yup’ik earthen or sod house, which was centered on a smoke hole. Here, the Mother Earth figure of Anerneq seems to be akin to a sheltering dwelling, from which blessing smoke rises up, as a prayer permeating all of creation.

Mask Imagery

To these observations, I will add some more speculative thoughts. It would appear that the young child at the upper right is holding a mask from the Yup’ik Winter ceremonial dance, which aids in the transition of animals and other living beings from generation to generation, allowing for hunting and fishing to continue in the coming year.  Perhaps we could even understand the whole painting as a transformation of the classic Winter Ceremonial mask motif, in which various sacred natural beings and forces—including the North Wind, Salmon, Moose, Eagle, Duck, and Seal (sometimes signaled by feathers or tail carvings)— radiate out from a central face, held in concentric lattice work. The children themselves seem to be positioned rather like the feathers that encircle many Yup’ik masks, calling forth new life in the seasons to come.

If I am reading the image correctly, the children are creating music, hitting traditional drums with drum sticks, as would be appropriate when a mask is activated in ritual activity that supports the regeneration of life. Like the ceremonial masked dance performances, the overall composition appears dedicated to maintaining balance between visible and invisible realms, and between persons and nature’s beings.

Historically, winter ceremonial masks would have been allowed over time to dissolve and disintegrate in the outdoors, gradually returning to the landscape from which their materials had been gathered. Apay’uq’s painting, in contrast, is a long-term permanent gift, helping to instruct all who see it in the core values of respect and spiritual connections across time.

It appears that the eyes of the central green maternal figure are closed, and that we are meant to behold her in a state of sleep, trance, or dream-vision. She may in that sense be akin to a shamanic figure, who historically, guided by spiritual visions, would have carved masks or instructed mask carvers in the shape and imagery of each mask. Perhaps we are being invited by the artist into a productive dreamscape, witnessing how the energies of land, water, and air are passed along in great cycles of renewal, in ways that transcend conventional understanding. Looking into this beautiful, meditative face we are invited to slow down our own breathing and to become attuned to the gradual rhythms of the natural world. The encircling waterway that flows from the ancestral mountains past the children and through the Earth Mother may remind us of the annual run of salmon through Bristol Bay–which brings ocean nutrients deep into the land’s interior and its highlands. The net effect of the work is to honor the unified matrix of persons, animals, foliage, land, and water that will continue to nurture future life, so long as we honor our responsibility to safeguard these precious gifts.

For Further Reading

Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2001. What’s in a Name: Becoming a Real Person in a Yup’ik Community. in Strangers to Relatives. The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America. Edited by Sergei Kan. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press.

Ann Fienup-Riordan. 1986 The Real People: The Concept of Personhood Among the Yup’ik Eskimos of Western Alaska Études/Inuit/Studies Vol. 10, No. 1/2, À LA FRONTIÈRE DES SEXES / ON THE BORDER OF GENDERS (1986), pp. 261-270

Harold Napoleon. 1996 Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. Edited by Eric Madsen. Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

–Listen to an interview with Apay’uq Moore and filmmaker Mark Titus at:

Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892): An Enslaved and Free Resident of Georgetown

This short essay attempts to sketch out the life of Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892), who spent at least the first four decades of her life in slavery at Tudor Place in Georgetown. I share what is known of her life and indicate some of the major mysteries and areas of inquiry that remain.

Parentage and Descent

Barbara’s maternal grandmother was Sall Twine (c. 1761, died after 1802), a dower slave derived from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), the first husband of Martha Dandridge, later Martha Custis Washington, the wife of George Washington. Sall’s mother was presumably a dower slave, and thus Sall was as well, under the custodial control, if not the full ownership, of George Washington throughout George Washington’s life. (A widow or her new husband retained use value of dower slaves, but could not sell or transfer them without court permission. Dower slaves were normally passed onto the heirs of the widow’s late husband’s estate after her death).

1799 Inventory of Dower slaves, showing Sall Twine and her children. List : “Negroes Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage”, July 1799: Digital Collections of the Washington Library, Mount Vernon

Sall resided and labored with other dower slaves at Dogue Run and Muddy Hole farms, two of the five farmes that made up the Mount Vernon estate, She had an estimated six children with the enslaved man George, a gardener owned by George Washington who was based at the Mount Vernon Mansion House farm. Under the terms of George Washington’s will, George was to be freed after Martha Custis Washington’s death, and was in fact freed by her before her 1802 death, probabky in 1800. The dower slaves, however, including Sall, remained enslaved and were distributed among the Custis heirs. Over sixty Custis slaves had been previously transferred to Martha Custis Washington’s son’s daughter Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) and her husband the Georgetown merchant and mayor Thomas Peter (1769-1834), on the occasion of their wedding in 1795; many of these individuals had sold off by the Peters.

After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, ownership of Sall and her children passed to Martha Parke Custis and her husband Thomas Peter, who at this point resided at K street and Rock Street, to the immediate east of Georgetown, within the site of the new Federal City.

I am not sure of what became of George, the now free husband of Sall Twine, after this point. (Perhaps he eventually relocated to Gum Spring, along with other of the freed former slaves of George Washington.)

[In A Georgetown Life (2020) Grant Quertermous asserts that the mother of Baraba Cole was Sall Twine, but this is contrary to the oral history shared by the Barbara Cole’s descendants, and seems inconsistent with available documentary evidence.]

According to the 1799 inventory of slaves at Mount Vernon, reproduced above, Sall Twine, then based at Dogue Run farm, was the mother of Barbary, born around 1788, Abbay, born around 1789, Hannah, born around 1795, and George, born around 1798.

Hannah, age 7, presumably the daughter of Sall Twine is listed in Thomas Peter’s note of 1 April 1803 as being assigned to work at the Peter’s farm in Maryland, presumably the Oakland property (Kail 2016). The same note references George, age 6, being assigned to labor at the same property; I presume this is the young son of Sall Twine, enumerated in the 1799 Mount Vernon census of the Washington slaves. This George, as I have noted elsewhere (Auslander 2012), appears to have been later transferred to the son of Thomas and Martha Parke Custis Peter, John Parke Custis Peter, and labored through most of his life at Seneca farm and quarry, which had been part of the Oakland estate along the Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland. (An 1835 court petition notes that prior to the death of Thomas Peter, he transferred forty-six slaves to his two sons, John Parke Custis Peter and George Washington Peter, and a family associate.)

Sall’s daughter Barbary (b. 1788) was evidently transferred to Martha and Thomas Peter, who at the time of Martha Washington’s death were residing at their house on K Street near Rock Creek (now 2018 K Street), before they purchased in 1805 the eight acre property in north Georgetown that became Tudor Place. The Peters during the early decades of the 19th century alternated residence seasonally between their new property at Tudor Place and their 500 acre farm “Oakland” in southern Montgomery County, Maryland, along the Potomac River, in the vicinity of present day Seneca and Lock 24 on the C&O canal. The Peters also owned a smaller farm property known as Effingham, between present-day Sixth and Seventh streets in Washington D.C. (Kail 2016) Presumably. their enslaved people were transferred between these properties based on agrarian and domestic labor needs.

Barbary gave birth to her daughter, Barbara (later known as Barbara Cole Williams), around 1809. It is not clear whom the father might have been. (If the 1860 census entry mentioned below for Barbara Williams pertains to “our” Barbara, then she was born in the District of Columbia, which presumably means born at the Tudor Place property.)

The Cole and Williams Surnames

Barbara (b, 1809) is at times referred to as Barbara Cole and at times as Barbara Williams. Her daughter Hannah used the Cole surname, including in registering her 1847 marriage with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867. It is not clear if Barbara was born with the Cole surname, or if she acquired it through marriage to an enslaved or free man of color. Perhaps the surname was used by her mother Barbary, daughter of Sall Twine, or perhaps by her unknown father.

As noted below, I believe that Barbara Cole acquired the surname Williams through marriage to a William Williams in 1856.

I list enslaved and free Cole’s in antebellum District of Columbia in Appendix I. Perhaps future research will uncover connections between some of these families and Barbara Cole.

Life at Tudor Place and Oakland

Barbary’s daughter Barbara Cole (b, 1809) seems from an early age to have been assigned to look after Britannia Wellington Peter (later Kennon), born 1815, the youngest child of Thomas and Martha Peter to reach adulthood. In time, Barbara was Britannia’s principal maid, and later looked after Britannia’s only child, Martha “Markie” Custis Kennon (1843-1886) as a nurse (Quertermous 2020). As noted below, it appears that Barbara continued to work as a nurse or nursemaid until late in life.

According to oral history among the Pope descendants, Barbara (b 1809) was impregnated in 1828, at around age nineteen, by a white member of the Peter family, possibly one of Britannia’s brothers. She bore twin girls on 28 December 1828: Barbary who died in infancy and Hannah Cole, who lived until 1912. The Pope descendants note that their biogenetic relationship to the Dandridge line (as in Martha Dandridge Custis Washington) is confirmed by DNA testing and that they have numerous white DNA cousins descended from Martha Custis Washington.

We do not know if this sexual relationship with a white member of the slaveowning Peter household was transitory or long term. There are family stories that Barbara was resistant to control, and was at times transferred out to one of the family farms, perhaps at Oakland, as punishment.

According to their descendants’ reminiscences, Barbara and Hannah resided together in the attic of Tudor Place.

Barbara and Hannah would have had close interactions with the other enslaved people in the Peter household, including the cook Charity and her daughter Fanny; before they were sold to the Governor of Virginia James A. MacDowell (1795-1851) on 13 January 1845; Sarah the chambermaid; Charles, the groom; and Henry and the waiter and coachman.

After the marriage in 1842 of Britannia Wellington Peter to US Navy Commander Beverley Kennon, Barbara and her daughter Hannah were given to the new couple as part of their dowry from the Peter family. These two enslaved women moved with the young bride Britannia to the Washington Navy Yard, which Beverley Kennon commanded. They would have been at the Navy Yard during the birth of the Kennon’s couple’s only child Martha “Markie”, and at the time of the tragic death of Beverley Kennon, when a naval gun exploded on board the USS Princeton during a demonstration cruise on the Potomac in 1844.

Following the death of their owner Beverley Kennon in 1844, Barbara and her daughter Hannah appear in the Household Appraisal of Beverly Kennon’s Estate, as  “Negro Girl Hannah $350.00. Negro Girl Barbara $ 200.00.” (Tudor Place Archives MS 7 Box 1 –26). They would then have become dower slaves, controlled by Britannia Peter Kennon, and evidently returned with her to Tudor Place.

The immediate aftermath of Beverley Kennon’s death must have been a deeply unsettling time for the enslaved people at Tudor Place. in the settlement of the estate, as noted above, the cook Charity and her daughter were sold away in January 1845. Hannah was also sold that year, it would appear, by Britannia to the former Congressman, Georgetown attorney John Carter, who lived several blocks south of Tudor Place. Britannia’s reminsicences assert that the sale was made to allow Hannah to marry her beloved, Alfred Pope, then enslaved and owned by John Carter. This may have been the case, or the sale may have been primarily motivated by the financial pressures to settle the Kennon estate.

In any event, an 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records the marriage between Hannah and Alfred as having taken place in 1847. The following year Hannah gave birth to the couple’s first child, the girl Jedidah, named for Alfred’s mother. Also in 1848, Alfred joined the attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl, and was recaptured. In contrast to nearly all of the Pearl escapees, Alfred was not sold to slave dealers, but was returned to reside with his owner. Two years later, Alfred, his wife Hannah, mother Jedidah, and daughter Jedidah, along with other enslaved people in the Carter household, were freed under the terms of John Carter’s will. The Pope family continued to live in Georgetown, several blocks from Tudor Place.

The 1850 slave schedule lists a “J. Peters” in Georgetown owning four female slaves, born around 1795, 1819, 1825, and 1837. None of these match the age of Barbara Cole, and it is not clear who precisely “J. Peters” was. It is possible that Sall’s daugher Hannah, born around 1795 according to the 1799 inventory at Mount Vernon, the aunt of Barbara Cole, is the eldest slave in this record, listed as born 1795. The 1850 census (of free persons) lists only one person with the Peters surname residing at Tudor Place, “M. Peters,” who must be Martha Custis Peter. The “J” in the slave schedule was presumably a mistake by the census enumerator.

It seem possible that Alfred and Hannah Pope might have labored during this period to raise the funds to secure the freedom of Hannah’s mother Barbara. or Barbara herself may have attempted to purchase her freedom. The fact that Charity and Fanny had been sold away may have increased their sense of urgency to secure Barbara’s freedom. If this was the case, no record of any such payment has survived, to my knowledge, in the District of Columbia manumission records of the period. Since Barbara was most likely a dower slave, there would have been legal challenges to manumitting her, although that consideration does not seem to have prevented Britannia from selling Charity, Fanny, and Hannah.

When Did Barbara Become Free?

There are several piece of indirect evidence that Barbara was free before 1860, and perhaps even before 1850:

  1. The 1850 census lists a Barbara Cole, a free woman of color, born in the District of Columbia around 1815, residing in Washington Ward 1 in the household of “Mathew” (a mistaken rendition of “Nathaniel” ) Towson, a brigadier general in the US Army, who served as the Army’s Paymaster General. General Towson, who lived at 17th and F streets, just north of the Executive Mansion and opposite the Navy Department, employed two other live-in black servants, Luand (?) Witherson, born around 1825, and William Pierre (mistakenly written as “Pier” in the census), born 1824. Could Barbara already have attained freedom by this point? Given the circles that Britannia Wellington Kennon Peter traveled in, as widow to the former Commandant of the Navy Yard (who also headed the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs), it seems possible that she might have been able to secure Barbara a place in the Towson household.
  2. The District of Columbia marriage records indicate that Barbara A. Cole married William Williams on 17 November 1856 (Film Number: 002079252). This is consistent with the 1890 District of Columbia City Directory entry that lists Barbara as the widow of William Williams (see below). This record would seem to imply that Barbara was free by 1856.

3. The 1860 slave schedule does not list any slave-owners with the surname Kennon or Peter in Georgetown, so it may be that by then there no enslaved people residing at Tudor Place. Britannia’s close Peter relatives retained extensive slave holdings at several sites in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, including in Seneca (the former Oakland property) and the four women listed in the 1850 slave schedule might have been transferred to one of those properties by 1860. It is known that Britannia regularly rented out some of the enslaved people she owned, and perhaps for this reason none are listed in the 1860 census.

4. The 1860 census lists a Barbary Williams, age 50 (born around 1810 in the District of Columbia ), living as a free black servant in the household of the Georgetown merchant Corrnelius Stribling, at the corner of Gay and Green Streets (present day N and 29th streets), along with two other free black servants Mary Carter and Eliza Carter. This household was two blocks due south from the home at O and 29th streets, of Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Barbara Cole Williams, and about four blocks from Tudor Place, where Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon still resided.

1860 Censsus entry in Georgown for Barbary William, b. 1810,

Speculatively the surname Carter of the two other servants in the Stribling household might suggest they had some connection with the household of Congressman Congressman John Carter, where Alfred and Hannah Pope had been enslaved up until 1850.

Barbara’s employer in 1860, Cornelius K. Stribling II, was the first son of Rear Admiral Cornelius K. Stribling, the third commandant of the US Naval Academy. Cornelius II was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was married to Emma Josepha Nourse, son Dr. Benjamin Franklin Nourse, descendant of James Nourse, whose family was prominent in Georgetown and environs. Britannia was on familiar terms with the Nourses, and through her late husband USN Commandant Kennon, knew many senior figures in the Navy. Perhaps she helped secure Barbara her position in the Stribling household.

(In 1850, in Norfolk VA, the father of Cornelius Stribling II, Admiral Cornelius Stribling owned six slaves. However, I do not see any evidence that Cornelius II owned any slaves.

Who was William Williams?

Who was William Williams, who evidently married Barbara Cole in 1856?

The 1850 census lists a William M. Williams, a free man of color living in Washington’s Ward 1, born around 1824 in Virginia, evidently a servant in the household of Maria Sperden. The 1853 City Directory lists a William Williams, colored, working as a driver and living downtown on C street between 3rd and 4th.

The 1858 District of Columbia Directory lists a William Williams, colored, employed as a coachmen residing in an alley between M and N streets, north, near Vermont Avenue. This location was about two miles due west of Tudor Place and the residence of Alfred and Hannah Pope (who lived at 78 Montgomery street in Georgetown, now 28th and O streets.) Two years later, the 1860 directory lists a William Williams, colored, as a waiter, living nearby at 235 L street, north. (There is not a black William Williams of credible age in the 1860 census in the District.)

At least fifteen black men named William Williams served in the US Colored Troops and at least eleven black men of the same name enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War; I am not sure at this point if Barbara’s husband served in the Union Army or Navy.

In Appendix II, I list enslaved and free people of color in the District of Columbia with the surname Williams, some of whom may be related to Barbara’s husband.

Post Civil War

It is possible that Barbara alternated between the Williams and Cole surnames. The 1865 Georgetown directory lists a “Mrs. Barbara Cole, col’d” (colored), living at 23 Fourth street (present day Volta Place), about three blocks from Tudor Place, just across High Street (the present day Wisconsin Avenue).

1865 Georgetown Directory for Mrs. Barbara Cole

The 1870 and 1880 censuses gives no indication of a Barbara Cole, a Barbara Williams or a William Williams of the correct age living in Georgetown or elsewhere in the District of Columbia. I am not sure what point Barbara became widowed.

On August 18, 1871, Hanna Cole Pope opened a Freedman’s Bank account in the District, and listed as her mother “Barbara Williams,” but giving no indication of where Barbara was living at the time.

During the later decades of her life, Barbara Cole Williams must have known her granddaughter and namesake, the remarkable Barbara Ellen Pope (1858-1908), daughter of Hannah Cole and Alfred Pope. Barbara Pope, a teacher, accomplished writer. and Niagra Movement member, was famously arrested in 1906 for refusing to sit in a “Jim Crow” segregated railroad car and subsequently won her legal case with Niagra Movement support, establishing the right of interstate transportation without discrimination based on race. (Harris 2015).

The 1876 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a servant at 810 20th Street. After this there is no listing of Barbara for twelve years until the the 1888 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a nurse at 1143 Connecticut Avenue.

1890 District of Columbia Directory

Two years later, the 1890 District of Columbia Directory lists Barbara Williams, widow of William, nurse, residing at 2900 O Street in Georgetown, the same address as her daughter Hannah Cole Pope and son in law Alfred Pope, where Barbara E. Pope resided as well. [The Pope family descendants recall that Barbara E. Pope lived her entire life in her parents’ house, escpt for time she spent at Tuskegee. According to the 1900 census, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope, occupation schoolteacher, resided at te 2900 O Street address ,where she is also listed in the 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses.]

Family Search’s database of DC deaths (record 662) notes that Barbara Williams died on 18 August 1892 in Washington D.C, at age 86. She is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown: The record from an undertaker reads,” Barbara Williams born 1806/died Aug 9 , 1892 – place of death 2900 O Street, NW,” the home of her parents Alfred and Hannah Pope. . Her eldest granddaughter Jedidah A, Pope Thompson, died 10 August 1897, and is buried in the Old Methodist burying ground of Mount Zion Cemetery (Sluby 1975, p 57). In contrast, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope (who never married) is buried in Columbia Harmony Cemetery (subsequently moved from Rhode Island Avenue to Hyattsville, Maryland).

Appendix I. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Cole in the District of Columbia

A. Free persons of color with the surname Cole in antebellum DC in 1860 include:

The family of James and Catherine Cole in Ward 2:

James Cole 42
Catharine Cole 38C
Georgiana Cole 18
Wm Cole 16
Wille Ann Cole 10
Hester Tyler 25
Ida Tyler 4
(Georgeanna Cole’s freedom was attested to on 5 May 1859, by John S. Norris in front of a Justice of the Peace.)

On July 2, 1860, George Cole, a free man of color, states that he has been illegally arrested and confined to jail as a runaway slave. He sought a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted.

B. Enslaved Persons with the surname Cole

The 1862 Compensated Emancipation petitions in the District of Columbia indicate that at least fourteen enslaved people with the surname Cole were freed. These includeL

Sibey (or Libey) Cole, born around 1787, and her likely daughter Rachel Cole, born around 1833, owned by Ulysses Ward. (Sibey was acquired from Ulysses’s wife).

Ellen Cole, born around 1810, owned by Matthew McCleod (Inherited by Matthew’s late wife from her mother in law, Mrs. Mary Manning of St. Mary’s County Marylan.)

James Henry Cole, born around 1840, owned by Michael R Combs (received as a deed of gift from Michael’s grandfather Michael Sardo)

Maria Cole, born around 1847, owned by Thomas H. Barron, acquired through Thomas’ marraige. (Maria was in Prince George’s County when the act of emancipation was passed.)

Milly Cole, born around 1819 and her children Jacob Cole, b. 1839 and Rosa Cole , owned by Charles Lyon. Milly Jacob and Rosa, born 1852, were all purchased from Thomas and Cathereine Barron in 1854 An associated note indicates taht Jacob Cole, a “good mechanic, ” was purchased by Charles Lyons from Mr Sheckell of Washington City D. C. a Negro dealer about the year 1854” (Rosa Cole is not emancipated in 1862, so perhaps died at some point.)

Julia Cole, born around 1822, and her children Joseph, William, Robert and Albert, owned Mary A Harvey. (All inherited from Mary’s late father the late Michael Sardo last of Washington County in the District of Columbia. (Note that Michael Sardo also bequeatheed James Henry Cole )

Joanna Cole (alias Alexander) born around 1835 owned by Lieut. Henry L. Abbott, US Army, Acquired, “By virtue of a bill of sale from Mary Helen McLeod of Georgetown D.C. executed on the 19th day of June 1860” )

Appendix II. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Williams in the District of Columbia

A. Enslaved Persons with surname Williams:

Owned by Thomas Donoho (who purchased Selina Wiliams and child John Henry from Joshua Talbot in 1833):

Salina​ Williams 51
James Henry (son of Selina) 30
Lydia (daughter of Selina). 24
Lewis (son of Selina 15.1 mo
Marion (daughter of Selina 20
Gertrude (daughter of Marion 6
Laura (daughter of Marion 3
Edward (son of Lydia 6
Albert (son of Lydia 18 months

These are presumably related to Harriet Williams, owned by Thomas Talbert [Jr.] in the 1857 tax assessment in unincorporated Washington County,

Dick [i.e., Richard] Williams, 18, in the 1855 tax assessment, owned by Margaret C. Barber (current grounds of the Naval Observatory)

Owned by Fielder Magruder:

Duke Willams, born 1822
Adeline Williams
Lewis Williams
Charles Williams
Maria Williams (daughter of Adeline )

(Fielder purchased all except Maria around 1856, from John Throckmorto. Maria “born of Adeline since i purchased her.”)

B. Free Williams:

William Williams a free man of who in the District of Columbia in March 1836 sought an injunction against a Thomas Duvall, to prevent Duvall from transporting his enslaved wife and child out of the District of Columbia Williams asserted Duvall had imprisoned his wife and child in a slave jail with the intention of selling them to a slave dearlr. . (Petition details at: )

In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860

Nathaniel Williams 57
M A Williams 30
Rebecca Williams 25
Joseph Williams 29

In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860

Joseph Williams 53 mulatto
Bessie Williams 49

In Georgetown Ward 4 in 1860:

Charles Williams 53
M A Williams 50
Sarah Williams 21
John Williams 20

Washington Ward 1 in 1860:
Mary Williams 54
Mary Williams 12

Washington Ward 1 in 1860:

Chas Williams 40
Mathilda Williams 38
Mary Williams 19
Charles Williams 17
Francis Williams 16
Richard Williams 12
Martha Williams 7
Isabella Williams 6
Julia Williams 2

Washington Ward 2 in 1860:

Emily Williams, 28, servant in the household of William Thompson. plumber and gas fitter

Washington Ward 4 in 1860:

Frederic Williams 30
Lucy Williams 30
William Williams 18
Percilla Williams 15
Ann Williams 12
Charles Williams 10
James Williams 8
George Williams 4
Robert Williams 1

NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:

Geo Williams 47 laborer
Delphia Williams 63
Sarah Cole 25
Jos Cole 7
Eugene Cole 4

NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:

Geo Williams 47 laborer
Delphia Williams 63
Sarah Cole 25
Jos Cole 7
Eugene Cole 4

I do not know if this Williams-Cole family is somehow related to Barbara Cole Williams.


I am grateful to Wendy Kail, former archivist, Tudor Place, for her assistance in researcing enslaved persons at Tudor Place and at related Peter properties. Ann Chinn, historian and direct descendant of Barbara Cole Williams, has generously shared her family knowledge of this rich and complex history. Many thanks to Lisa Fager, (Executive Director Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society
Historic Memorial Park, Inc) for sharing information on Mt Zion burials; and to David Taylor for sharing information on Barbara E. Pope’s burial.


Mark Auslander. Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian: Reading the Stones Southern Spaces. December 12, 2012.

Jennifer Harris. 2015. Legacy Profile: Barbara E. Pope. Legacy. Vol 32 (2): 281-304.

Wendy Kail. Oakland: Far from the Madding Crowd. March 2016

Grant Quertermous. (ed). A Georgetown Life: The Reminsciences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon. Georgetown University Press. 2020

Paul Sluby. The Old Methodist Burying Ground (typescript), 1975.

Enslaved Persons in the 1855-62 Tax Assessments, Washington County, District of Columbia

List : “Negroes Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage”, July 1799. Digital collections of the Washington Library. Mount Vernon

Searching for Three Escapees on The Pearl: The Rosier Men in 1848

April 15, 2023 will mark the 175th anniversary of the escape on The Pearl the largest attempted non-violent escape of enslaved people in American history. On April 15, 1848, approximately seventy-seven enslaved people—according to one account “38 men and boys, 26 women and girls, and 13 small children or infants” — boarded the schooner The Pearl, which sailed surreptitiously from a District of Columbia wharf near seventh street down the Potomac, with the hopes of voyaging up the Chesapeake to reach the free state of New Jersey. In the early hours of April 18, a posse of slaveowners on a steamboat intercepted the ship near Point Lookout, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and captured the escapees. Nearly all of the enslaved people were sold by their owners by slave traders; many were transported to New Orleans, to be sold in slave markets there.

As we approach the 175th anniversary, the challenge of locating the fate of the escapees and their descendants seem especially urgent. Lines of descendants from Alfred Pope and the Edmonson’s are well documented and Kaci Nash [2018] has made some progress in tracing the post-slavery history of the Bell family. Yet the other fugitives and their posterity remain, to my knowledge, untraced.

Having previously studied the enslaved families in the household of Ariana Jones Lyles of Tenallytown, at her 95 acre farm known as The Rest (in the current vicinity of 39th and Windom Streets NW, Washington DC), I am particular intrigued by three of the enslaved people she owned, who are listed as escaping passengers on The Pearl:

Nat Rosier
Augustus Rosier
Hannibal Rosier

Who precisely were these individuals and what became of them and their kin?

The 1828 Inventory of the Dennis Magruder Lyles Estate

Two of these individuals. Hannibal and Nat, appear in the 1828 probate inventory of the estate of Ariana Lyles’ late husband, Dennis Magruder Lyles, in the Piscataway district of Prince George’s County, at his family seat of Harmony Hall, located about three miles down the Potomac from the current location of National Harbor: “One boy Hanable,” valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Sophia, so is presumably her son. “One small boy Nathaniel,” also valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Harriet, so is likely to be her son. There is no reference to an Augustus or Gus, so presumably he was born after the 1828 inventory.

The full inventory of enslaved persons, to whom we will return to, is as follows.

Prince George’s County Inventories, Register of Wills. TT vol 7. p. 248. Slaves of Dennis M Lyles, bequeathed to widow Arianna Lyles. (Names followed by valuation in dollars.)

Negro Man John 325
Ellick Oliver 300
William 300
Enoch 250
Elick 350
Randolph 350
Huke? 350
Humphrey 150
John 50

Negro woman Kitty
Rachel 225
one small boy Abraham 50
one small girl Sarah 25
woman Sophia 200
one boy Hanable, 50
one boy James 150
woman Harriet 225
one small boy Nathaniel 50
one small girl Priscilla 25
One old woman Winny 25
one boy Bacchus aged about 14 years, 200
One girl Jane 50
One girl Arianna ? 100
one woman Mary 200
one girl Betty 50
One boy Thomas 50

With the exception of Rachel, and perhaps Sarah, all of these enslaved individuals passed to Ariana Lyles, the widow of the late Dennis Margruder Lyles. Under the term of Dennis Lyles’ will, his slave Rachel Loggins was freed. (Prince George’s County Will TI#l:438j Prince George’~County Certifi-cates of Freedom, p. 126, 1 January 1829)

In 1836, seven years after her husband’s death, Arianna Jones Lyles acquired the property known as The Rest, which still stands at 4343 39th street on the northeast corner of 39th and Windom, a bit southeast of the current location of Tenley Circle. The house had been previously owned by Arianna’s aunt Sarah Jones Love. The property was adjacent to the estate known as Clean Drinking, which had been in the possession of her mother’s kin, the Jones family. The Rest farm and orchard extended south to the northern border of the Highlands, the Charles Josephus Nourse estate. Presumably, in the late 1830s the widowed Ariana Lyles relocated to The Rest with her young daughter Sallie and fifteen or so enslaved persons. It is from this property, so far as we can tell, that three of the enslaved individuals owned by Ariana Lyles–Hannibal, Nathan, and Augustus Rosier–escaped in mid-April 1848. These three, along with the other 74 or so other escapees on The Pearl were recaptured on April 18 and were forcibly returned to the District of Columbia.

1848: Who Remained in Georgetown? The Case of Alfred Pope

It is generally asserted by historians that nearly all the recaptured escapees on The Pearl were sold by their owners to slave traders. The only clear exception to this case that I know of was Alfred Isaac Pope of Georgetown, whose owner Colonel John Carter, a North Carolina congressmen, decided not to sell him. Alfred, believed to have been fathered by a white male relative of Colonel Carter, held a relatively high status in the Carter household. Alfred’s descendant, the community historian and activist Ann Chinn, shares the family story that Colonel Carter asked Alfred, with astonishment, why he had chosen to escape, given his comparative life of privilege in Georgetown. Alfred replied that he simply could not tolerate a life in slavery. This seems to have influenced Colonel Carter, who in his will indicated that Alfred and his wife Hannah Cole Pope should be freed, along with the couple’s daguther Jedidah, Alfred’s mother Jedidah and other people enslaved in the household, which they were after Carter’s death in 1850. The Pope’s in time became one of the most prominent African American families in Georgetown.

Hannah Cole, it should be noted, was a direct descendant in the female line of enslaved woman Sall Twine, a dower slave held by Martha Custis Washington at Dogue Run farm at Mount Vernon. Hannah’s mother was Barbara Cole Williams, who was held in slavery in the household of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, great granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, at Tudor Place in north Georgetown. Hannah, her descendants note, was fathered by one of the white brothers of Britannia. As Britannia’s (unacknowledged) niece, it may be that Hannah was afforded some restricted privileges within the Tudor Place compound. Around 1845, Britannia consented to Hannah’s request that she be sold to Colonel John Carter, who lived a few blocks away, so that she could reside with the enslaved man Alfred Pope, whom she intended to marry.

An 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records that Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole were married in 1847. The following year, Alfred Pope boarded The Pearl, in the failed escape.

It is not clear why Hannah did not join her new husband on The Pearl. Perhaps, Alfred hoped to establish himself in New Jersey or another free state, and in time arrange to purchase Hannah’s freedom at a distance. Since the Pope’s first born child Jedidah was born around 1848, it is possible that Hannah was pregnant or caring for a newborn in April 1848, and thus deemed an escape inadvisable. It may also have been that Hannah was reluctant to leave behind her mother Barbara, who was still enslaved at nearby Tudor Place as a maid to Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon.

Reviewing the 1848 slave trading records

What happened to all the other escapees on The Pearl?

After they were captured and returned to the District of Columbia, some of the fugitives were initially purchased from their owners by the slave trader Joseph Bruin, who in 1843 had formed in Alexandria, the slave trading firm Bruin and Hill with his partner Henry P. Hill. Bruin purchased the six Edmonson siblings and transported them to New Orleans, bringing back the two Edmonson sisters to Alexandria because of a Yellow Fever outbreak in Louisiana. Their freedom was eventually secured through fundraising by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and others. Bruin’s slave jail became nationally infamous after it was featured in Rev. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unfortunately, no records of Bruin and Hill’s operations survive to my knowledge, so it is unclear if Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rosier were purchased by the firm from Ariana Lyles after their recapture.

In a widely reprinted letter to the editor, Congressman John L Slingerland of Albany NY, describes encountering (evidently on the evening of April 21) about fifty fugitives from The Pearl, “some of whom were nearly as white as myself,” confined to a rail box car at the District of Columbia’s railroad depot, about to be taken to “Georgia.” Slingerland describes a Baltimore-based slave dealer on the train, purchasing the escaped individuals from their owners. (first published Albany Evening Journal; reprinted in the The Semi-Weekly Eagle, Brattleboro, Vermont. May 4, 1848, under the title “Horrors of Washington-Scene at Washington:). Harriet Beecher Stowe reports in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Part II, Chapter Six) that after the recapture about forty Pearl escapees were transported to Baltimore, and held there about three weeks, until they were transported south to New Orleans.

Some of these names, including the Edmonson siblings, are recorded on the slave manifest of the brig Union, arriving in New Orleans on 18 May 1848. However, the three Rosier men are not listed. Nor have I seen them listed in the other coastwise inward and outward slave manifests held in the National Archives. (It is possible that were listed under other surnames than Rozier or Rosier, or that they were sold locally within Maryland, Alexandria or the District of Columbia, in which case no ship manifests would record their names.)

1855 Tax Assessments, Washington County, District of Columbia

Are we sure that Ariana Lyles sold Hannibal, Nathan and Augustus Rosier after their recapture in 1848?

The January and February 1855 tax assessments for Washington County (which was until 1871 separate from the capital city of Washington for tax collection purposes) lists the following enslaved people owned by “Lyles, Mrs. Arian[n]a J”, with their names, ages, and estimated value:

Randall [Ford], 48, $350;
Anthony [Riley], 30,$500;
Adam [Contee], 28, $600;
John, 26, $600;
Calhoun, 18, $600;
H[enry?] Clay, 18, $600;
David[Oliver], 15, $500;
John [Oliver], 9, $250;
Edward,20, $600;
Eliza [Rozier], 23, $500;
Maria [Brown],18, $500;
Sylvia, 18, $500
Milly, 35, $400;
Anna,12, $300;
Caroline [Oliver], 8, $250;
Theodore, 5,$200;
Jack, 3, $150;
Abram, 1, $50

Given that Hannibal. Nathaniel and Augustus are not included in this tax assessment, they presumably had been sold before 1855. It seems likely that in keeping with nearly all the other owners of the Pearl escapees, Ariana Lyles sold them in 1848. (Incidentally, Kitty, the first woman listed in the 1828 inventory of Dennis Lyles’ estate is missing from the 1855 assessment, but I speculate she may be the same person as the Kitty, age 42 (born around 1813) in the tax assessment list of Thomas Marshall, Arianna’s son in law and immediate neighbor. Perhaps Arianna’s daughter Sallie brought Kitty into her marriage with Thomas Marshall.)

Compensated Emancipation Petitions, 1862

In her 2005 book on The Pearl, Josephine Pacheco incorrectly asserts that Hannibal Rosier, escapee on the Pearl, was the only one of the estimated seventy seven escapees who still resided in the District of Columbia at the time of compensated emancipation in 1862. This is clearly incorrect. As noted above, Alfred Pope, a Pearl passenger, was freed in 1850 following the death of his owner Col, John Carter, and continued to live in Georgetown with his wife Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Babara Cole Williams, who had remained enslaved at Tudor Place.

There is a Hannibal Rozier in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles, but he was six years old when manumitted, so was born around 1856 and clearly could not have participated in the April 15, 1848 escape on board The Pearl, six years before his birth.

Having said that, the enslaved Rozier family documented in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles is certainly intriguing. The thirteen enslaved people freed in her household are:

Randall Ford, 57
Maria 26,
Caroline 16,
Adrian Conter , 32
David Oliver, 24
John Oliver, 26
Henry Rozin, 8
Hannibal Rozin, 6stemboat
Sophia Ford, 70
[Chiah?] Bowman, 62
Eliza Rozin, 31
Maria Brown, 26
Caroline Oliver, 16
Sally Rozin, 4
& Anthony (no age given)

Of these, Ariana attests she inherited all from her late husband Dennis Margruder Lyles, with the exception of Chiah, whom she “purchased from the Estate of Hanson Marshall late of Charles County Maryland, deceased.”

Of all the individuals listed in the petition, only Randolph Ford matches with anyone listed in the 1828 inventory of the Lyles estate at Harmony Hall.

All four of the individuals with the Rosier surname —Eliza, Hannibal, Henry and Sallie—are born after 1828, so it is not surprising that they are absent from the inventory of Dennis M. Lyles’ estate. Of the four Rozier’s listed in the 1862 petition, only Eliza is recorded in the 1855 tax assessment rolls. Eliza is presumably the mother of Henry, Hannibal and Sallie. Perhaps Eliza, born around 1833, was a daughter of Harriet or Sophia, the evident mothers of two of the escapees on the Pearl, “Hannable” and “Nat.” (I do not know if Eliza took her surname Rozier from her mother, or from a husband, as both practices are documented in enslaved communities.)

1870 Census: Eliza and her Children

I see no evidence of the Pearl escapees Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rozier in the 1870 census, the first Federal census in which the names of all persons of color were recorded, or in the 1880 census. Perhaps they died in the period since 1848, or perhaps their names had been changed. (In the 1870 census, there is is only one African American with the surname Rosier born in Maryland in the state of Louisiana, the state to which the recaptured Rosier’s were possibly transported in 1848: this is Charles Rosier, born around 1829, living as a farmer in East Baton Rouge.)

However, Eliza Rosier and her children Hannibal, Henry and Sallie, listed in Ariana’s 1862 peition, do appear eight years later in the 1870 census in downtown Washington DC, in an alley off of 10th street:

Randolph Ford Age 57 (hence born around 1805 )

Eliza Rozur, 42 (born c. 1828)

Hanibal Rozur, 16 (born 1856)

Henry A Rozur, 12 (born 1858)

Sally Rozur, 10, born 1860

Note that the ages of Hannibal and Henry have been exchanged between the 1862 and the 1870 census, and that Sally is listed in 1870 as two years younger than in the 1862 petition, which suggests the 1870 census enumerator may have been hasty and somewhat inattentive.

In any event, since the eldest of Eliza’s listed children was born in 1854, six years after The Pearl incident, they clearly could not have been fathered by any of the escaping Rozier men. Perhaps the escaping Hannibal was the elder brother, uncle, or grandfather of Eliza, and she named her child Hannibal ( most likely born in 1854, six years after the failed attempt) in his memory.

It is just possible that the “A” in Henry Rozier’s middle name may have stood for Augustus, and that he too was named for one of the Pearl escapees.

As noted above, in 1870 Eliza and her children are living with 65 year old Randolph Ford (born around 1805), who had also been listed “Randall,” (same age) in the 1862 petition and had been listed as Randolph in the 1828 inventory of Dennis M. Lyles, as one of nine enslaved men owned by the estate. Perhaps Randolph Ford is the father or father-in0law of Eliza Rozier, and grandfather of the children Hannibal, Henry and Sally.

Hannibal Rozier, presumably the son of Eliza, is listed in the 1873 District of Columbia directory, as a laborer, boarding at 504 10th street, SW. I have not yet located further records of him.

Nathan Rosier: 1870 Freedman’s Bank

A possible kinsman of escapee Nat Rosier may appear twenty-two years after the Pearl Affair in the Freedman Bank’s records, in the District of Columbia. On April 16, 1870 Nathan Rosier, age 63 (born around 1807) opens a bank account with a $7.50 deposit, noting that his parents are no longer living, and indicating that he was born and grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland.

In his 1870 bank record Nathan lists his wife Jane Rosier and children Henrietta Turner and James Rosier. He reports as his half brothers Henry Smallwood and Joseph Rosier, and as his sisters Cenia Ann, Jane, Eliza, and Mary.

This Nathan, born around 1807 cannot be the “small boy Nathaniel” listed in the 1828 inventory of the Dennis Lyles estate. As noted above, there is no Nathan or Nathaniel of his age listed in the 1828 Dennis Lyles inventory. Much more likely is that the escapees Nat, Hannibal and Augustus were all young men in 1848, perhaps in their twenties.

Yet this Nathan Rozier in the 1870 bank record seems likely to be a relative of some sort to the group Rozier’s previously enslaved by the Lyles. One of his sisters is “Eliza,” who could be related to the Eliza listed in Ariana Lyle’s compensated emancipation 1862 petition.

I do not see Nathan and Jane Rozier in the 1870 census, but the 1880 census lists a Nathan Rozier, born around 1839, a farmer in Trappe, Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, married to Jane.

Background: Enslaved and Free Rozier’s

There are many 19th century records of enslaved and free people of color with the surname of Rozier, Rosier, Rozur, or Roser, primarily in the District of Columbia, and the Maryland counties of Montgomery County, Prince’s George’s County, Queen Anne’s County, Talbot, and Charles County.

It is possible that this extended network of enslaved and free Rosier people had their origins in the estates of H. Rosier, who is recorded in the 1810 census in Pescataway and Hynson Hundreds, Prince George’s, Maryland, as owning 20 slaves (with two free people of color) and Mary Rosier, who in 1810 in the same district owned 52 slaves. These slaveowning Rosier’s were likely descendants of Benjamin Rosier (d.1681) Charles Cty, Port Tobacco, MD.

The estates of H. Rosier and Mary Rosier, near the current location of National Harbor, were within a few miles of the location of Dennis Magruder Lyles’ family seat Harmony Hall, where the slaves enumerated in the 1828 inventory resided. I am not sure if the enslaved individuals in question came into the Magruder and Lyles family through inheritance or sale.


As of this writing, I have found no direct documentary traces of the fates of The Pearl escapees Nathanial, Hannibal and Augustus Rosier after their recapture on April 17, 1848. It seems likely that they were quickly sold by Ariana Lyles, who had evidently inherited them or their parents from her husband Dennis Magruder Lyles in 1828, to local slave traders. Perhaps they were sold within the District of Columbia or surrounding Maryland counties, or perhaps, like so many other Pearl fugitives, they were transported in New Orleans and then were resold into plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, where many enslaved people faced horrific working conditions and abbreviated life spans.

One of the many remaining questions from the spring of 1848 is how precisely did Hannibal, Augustus, and Nathaniel learn of the pending escape, as word spread through the network of enslaved and free families in Georgetown? At the time, were all three residing at The Rest, over three miles from the heart of Georgetown up the Fredrick Road, now know as Wisconsin Avenue? We do know that some enslaved people from Georgetown, including those from Tudor Place, were regularly rotated out to family farms in Tennalytown, so they may have helped spread the word. Alternately, Ariana Lyles may have rented out one or more of the Rosier men to a white family or business in Georgetown, where they gained knowledge of the plan. We can only speculate why of the fifteen or so people then enslaved at The Rest, only the three Rosier young men decided to take the great risk of escape, while the others remained in captivity. (Ann Chinn suggests that escape organizer Paul Jennings, who had been enslaved by President Madison. worked hard to spread the word among enslaved people in the area’s affluent households.)

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that, whether they were conscious of the fact or not, as the three Rosier men sailed down the Potomac on board The Pearl on April 16, 1848, they passed directly by Harmony Hall and the other lands on the eastern shore of the Potomac where generations of their forbearers had been enslaved. A day later, as the white posse returned them under armed guard back up the Potomac, they would have passed the same sites of familial enslavement, as they approached the District of Columbia and faced a terrifying and uncertain future.


Mary Beth Corrigan, “The Legacy and Significance of a Failed Mass Slave Escape”, H-Net Reviews: Josephine Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, April 2006.

Kaci Nash. Emancipating the Bell Family: An Inquiry into the Strategies of Freedom-Making. O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family. June 2018.

Josephine F. Pacheco. The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005

Quertermous, Grant S. (ed.) A Georgetown Life: The Reminsicences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place. Georgetown University Press. 2020.

Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl The Heroic Bid For Freedom on the Underground Railroad Harper-Collins: New York 2007

Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. . Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1854.

The Iliad in Early America: A Wax and Shell Tableau, 1783

I have been fascinated by an object from the dawn of the American Independence period, a wax and shellwork tableau created by Samuel Fraunces as a gift for Martha Custis Washington. Fraunces (1722 or 1723–10 October 1795), a chef and restaurateur who was later household steward to President Washington, established in 1762 the Queen Charlotte’s Head Tavern in New York City. This tavern was the location of George Washington’s final address on December 4, 1783 to the officers of Continental Army, days before Washington resigned his military commission and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. On that same day in December, Fraunces wrote to George Washington alluding to this intricate object: “I most earnestly beg your Excellency will order about the Carriage of a small piece of Shell Work which I have lately compleated for Mrs Washington purposely—whose acceptance of it will confer the greatest Honor on me—the [feild] is Hector and Andromache adorned with Shell Flowers the collection of a number of years—.” The gift was conveyed to Martha Washington in 1785 and she reportedly placed it on her bedside bureau; it was later acquired by her grand-daughter Martha Custis Peter and her husband Thomas Peter and has remained ever since at Tudor Place in Georgetown. (Note 1)

Recently conserved and restored, the elaborate object depicts one of the the most famous scenes in Homer’s Iliad, the moment in Book Six when the great warrior Hector poignantly takes his leave from his wife Andromache and their newborn baby Astyanax, held by a nursemaid. Hector resists Andromache’s pleas to remain within the relative safety of the city walls, even as he prophesies the fall of Troy, his own death in combat, and the enslavement of his beloved wife by the besieging Achaeans. The scene would have been instantly familiar to educated Americans. Alexander Pope’s English language translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey sold 20,000 copies in the colonies in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution (Winter 2005). Earlier vernacular, illustrated translations of Homer circulating in the colonies included George Chapman’s version (1598-1611) and John Ogilby’s Homer, His Iliads (1660).

Samuel Fraunces. Shell and Wax Tableau, c. 1783. Tudor Place collections.

The Genre of Shell Work

Fraunces’ tableau is an example of “Grotto work” or shell work, a genre that was developed in the 17th century and became increasingly popular during the 18th century. Sea shells were collected and carefully arrnaged to emulate flowers and trees, and to depicts classical scenes, encouraging the careful contemplation of natural specimens and literature. These pieces, sometimes referenced as Grotto-esques, emulated sea-carved natural grottos, which were thought to be a particularly compelling formations, often with mystical or mythological associations. Nearly all shellworks during this period to my knowledge were created by women, and were considered a significant component of female education. Many contained classical allusions. (see Keim 2004) The Chester County Historical Society for example, contains a shellwork titled, ““Calypso’s Grotto,“, created by schoolgirl Sarah Morris in 1764, representing the sea nymph who imprisoned Odysseus on her island in Homer’s Odyssey. (Baerman 2019).

A fascinating recent Master’s thesis by Brooke Baerman (2019) argues that 18th century shell-based grotto works tended to be complex microcosmic projections of women’s consciousness, subtly mapping interior female bodily space, including the reproductive tract. Architectural formations such as Greco-Roman temples, created by shells and wax work, she argues, evoked mysterious female power and sexuality in social acceptable, albeit oblique, registers.

Although Samuel Fraunces may have been unusual in his pursuit of this primarily female decorative form, his choice of a Homeric subject for the tableau was well in keeping with 18th century conventions.

Enigmatic Imagery

The imagery chosen by Fraunces is in many respects understandable, and in other ways puzzling. The scenario of Hector and Andromache’s parting would have been immediately understood as a supreme signifier of patriotic duty, highly applicable to the case of George Washington, who like Hector chose to leave behind the comforts to domestic bliss to face the mortal dangers of the battlefield. Hector, the bravest and noblest of Trojan heroes, was an obvious analogue for George Washington himself, whose feats in arms were increasingly celebrated in the later years of the American War of Independence. Similarly, Andromache would be understood as a clear counterpart to Martha Custis Washington, the epitome of a loyal wife on the home front as war raged. The decision to clothe the figurines in elaborate 18th century apparel was in keeping with iconographic conventions of the period; the well-known published English language versions of Homer similarly included illustrations depicting classical protagonists in contemporary clothing.

Having said that, there is something enigmatic about Fraunces’ decision to emphasize Book Six’s most haunting passage. The power of the scene for readers lies in the knowledge that Hector will within days perish at the hands of Achilles, that his baby Astyanax will be hurled to his death from the ramparts of the city, and that Andromache will face a long life of servitude (eventually becoming queen in a distant city). As Hector declaims to Andromache in Pope’s famous version,

Yet come it will, the day decreed by fates—
How my heart trembles while my tongue relates!—
The day when thou, imperial Troy! must bend,
And see thy warriors fall, thy glories end.
And yet no dire presage so wounds my mind,
…As thine, Andromache! thy griefs I dread,
I see thee trembling, weeping, captive led:
In Argive looms our battles to design,
And woes, of which so large a part was thine;
To bear the victor’s hard commands, or bring
The weight of water from Hyperia’s spring;
Then, while you groan beneath the load of life,
They cry, Behold, the mighty Hector’s wife!”

(Alexander Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 136)

How, we might wonder, would the darkness of this scene, envisioning the fall of Troy and the horrific fate of the hero’s spouse, seemed appropriate to Fraunces as a gift to Martha? Would it it have been read as an unfortunate omen that the newly independent states were similarly destined for defeat and subjugation and that Mrs. Washington too was destined for enslavement?

I speculate that during the many months or years that Fraunces labored to create the tableau, probably between 1781 and 1783, he may not have felt fully confident that the colonists’ cause would prevail. Working as an undercover intelligence agent for the Continental forces, Fraunces was well aware tha Washington’s forces continued to face vicissitudes in the face of overwhelming British military force on land and especially by sea, and that a victorious outcome was by no means assured. What Fraunces and his contemporaries would have been fully confident in, however, was that George Washington had chosen the path of honor, and that regardless of the ultimate fate of the American cause, Washington’s name, like Hector’s, would echo down through the ages as a paragon of selfless devotion to principles of martial duty. Again, as Pope presents Hector’s words,

“Me glory summons to the martial scene,
The field of combat is the sphere for men.
Where heroes war, the foremost place I claim,
The first in danger as the first in fame.”

(Pope, Iliad, Book IV, p. 137)

The tragic, even elegiac notes of the scene would thus perhaps have been considered appropriate to George Washington, who even if he died in combat would be assured his place as “first in fame,” whatever the fate of new republic, Similarly, Martha’s matchless reputation as a selfless spouse would remain unquestioned.

Another potentially discordant aspect of the scene is the fact that George Washington was widely known to be childless, so there was hardly a precise analogue to the baby Astyanax in the General’s parting from Martha and his household at Mount Vernon. It is perhaps for this reason that Fraunces chose not to to depict the famous moment in which Hector lifts aloft the baby in his arms to seek the gods’ blessings, a scene beloved by many previous and subsequent artists. In Fraunces’ rendition, the primary emphasis is on Hector and Andromache on the right, while the nursemaid is significantly off to the left of the stage, holding a baby that is just barely visible. The primary focus of the tableau is on Andromache on the far right, her left arm extended: the clear implication is that Martha Washington, as mother of the new republic, reigns triumphant. (The fact that all the viewers face towards the viewer’s left would seem to be consistent with the artist’s expectation that the work would be read as a text, from right to left, telling a story that anticipated the developing American story.)

The Classical Past and the American Revolution

This was not the first time Fraunces had molded wax figurines of classical subjects. During the summer of 1768, starting on July 21, Fraunces repeatedly advertised in The New York Journal that his recently opened Vaux Hall Gardens would feature a group of “magnificent wax figures, rich and elegantly dressed, according to the ancient Roman and present mode, which figures bear the most striking resemblance of real life and represent the great Roman General Publius Scipio, who conquered the City of Carthage, standing by his Tent, pitch’d in a Grove of Trees.” The assemblage depicted Scipio (popularly known as Scipio Africanus) surrounded by the captured leaders and generals of Carthage. Fraunces had already been working with shells by this period; the advertisement notes, “Also there are several very masterly pieces of Grotto work, composed of various shells, etc”.

New York Journal (July 21, 1768)

The summer of 1768, it should be noted, was a time of great political ferment in the colonies, and Fraunces, as an active member of the Sons of Liberty, would have been keenly aware of how much hung in the balance. In February of that year, Samuel Adams had circulated a letter opposing the Townshend Act and denouncing taxation without representation, an act of defiance that would lead to the Crown’-appointed Governor dissolving the Massachusetts General Court. During that summer, pressure was building in New York and Boston for a boycott of British goods. It seems possible that Fraunces intended the Cathaginian scene to be read allegorically, as an example of the fate awaiting tyrants.

The Pastoral and American Aristocracy

The parting of Hector and Andromache. An illustration to ‘L’Iliade d’Homère traduite en françois’, a French translation of the Iliad by Madame Dacier (Paris: Rigaud, 1711).

In contrast to most artistic depictions of Hector’s parting, the tableau does not depict the hero in armor or with shield and sword (see for example the 1711 French engraving above). Rather, the scene in Fraunces’ waxwork is of unalloyed bourgeois domesticity, the only hint of Hector/Washington’s martial status being a sash across his chest. Indeed, Fraunces chooses to embellish his figures with pastoral elements, presumably intended to honor the first couple upon their (presumed) retirement to Mount Vernon. Sheep, redolent of the blessings of peace, surround Hector and Andromache, and a lamb even nuzzles the hem of its mistresses’ bounteous dress. The couple appear to have entered the stage through classical columns in the center of the composition, draped with flowers and vines. On a branch just above Hector’s shoulder is perched an owl, familiar of the goddess Athena, its wings outspread in blessing of the heroic couple. (Given that Athena was the patron of Athens, the presence of her companion animal here may presage the Achaeans coming victory over the Trojans.)

Detail. Fraunces Tableau, showing owl

In his desire to honor the Washington’s, the royal lineage of Hector, son of King Priam and of Andromache, princess of Thebes, must have seemed appropriate to the artist and his contemporaries. Around the time Fraunces created the tableau, many of the Washington’s most fervent supporters saw them as the potential foundation of a new American aristocracy. The Order of the Cincinnati, composed of officers in the Continental Army, had been founded only a few months before Washington gave his parting December 1783 address to his officers. Washington would eventually promote reforms in the Order, including abolishing hereditary membership, precisely because he wished to be sen as uphold ing republican, as opposed to aristocratic values. Yet Fraunces, who would later serve as the first President’s steward in New York and Philadelphia, presumably felt that analogies between the Washington’s and the Trojan princely couple were entirely appropriate.

The Force of the Gift

The foundational anthropological theorist of the gift Marcel Mauss long ago noted that the gift embodies aspects of the persona of the donor, which will be transferred, in effect, into the personhood of the recipient; gifts are thus iconic of the relationship between giver and receiver, and may modulate or transform that relationship in complex ways. In this light, Samuel Fraunces’ decision to include in the tableau scores of tiny shells from his own collection, evidently from his home region in the Caribbean, suffused the object with elements of his own biography. The positioning of a loyal servant to the left of the royal couple might also be understood as the artist embedding himself within the gift, so that an aspect of his own being travels with it to Mount Vernon. (Note 2)

The artist may even have placed himself more directly within the gift. Given his surname and French heritage, Fraunces was presumably aware of the medieval and Renaissance French invented tradition (modeled on Virgil’s casting of Rome as founded by the Trojans) that Hector and Andromache’s son Astyanax had not perished at the Fall of Troy but had instead survived and, under the name of Francus, founded the royal lineage of the “Franks”. In Pierre de Ronsard’s 1572 epic La Franciade the god Jupiter saves the boy, who is renamed “Francus,” and after wedding a princess on Crete founds the royal French dynasty.: The poem begins:

“Sing for me that race Of French kings descended from Francion, Hector’s son and of Trojan stock/ Who in his tender childhood was called Astyanax /…tell me how many times on the seas (Despite Neptune and Juno) he overcame Fortune/ And how many times on solid ground he escaped From danger, before going on to build the walls of Paris”( (Phillip John Usher translation, 2010)

Perhaps Samuel Fraunces was thus inserting himself in effect into the position of the baby in arms (Astrynax/Francus), and implying that George and Martha Washington might think of him as their adopted son. It should be added that honoring the French royal family would have seemed entirely appropriate to American patriots after the French navy’s pivotal intervention at Yorktown.

Race and Slavery

Historians have debated if Samuel Fraunces was of African descent. He was from the Caribbean (possibly from Barbados or Haiti) and was known as “Black Sam.” (His tavern is sometimes called “Black Sam’s” in contemporary accounts.) The 1790 census lists him as owning one slave, and in 1784 he advertised the auction of a fourteen year old male slave. He is listed as white in official records, and was a member of Trinity Church, which prohibited blacks from full membership, yet he is referenced as mulatto or negro in journalistic and other unofficial accounts. W.E.B. DuBois strongly suspected he was of African heritage. It seems likely he was a light skinned man of color. Fraunces was certainly a most fascinating “shape shifter” during the Revolutionary War; working as a spy for the American cause, he contributed to the unmasking of Benedict Arnold and foiled a major assassination attempt against George Washington. (Note 3)

Regardless of the racial background of the artist, the problem of slavery does seem to hover around the entire work. The classical nursemaid is depicted as white, but nursemaids at plantations such as Mount Vernon during this era would of course have overwhelmingly been enslaved women of color. The documented use of sea shells from the Caribbean in the composition may allude to the wealth of the West Indies, so key to the prosperity of the new republic, a wealth that was anchored in enormity of slave-based plantations throughout the west Atlantic world. The wealth of the Washington’s, like that of the Trojans and the Archaens as recorded in Homer, depended on a complex system of enslavement, rank, and labor extraction.

Hence, a fascinating irony: the shadow that lurks over the parting scene in Book Six of the Iliad is the anticipated terror of the protagonists, especially Andromache, falling into slavery. White American revolutionaries in the late 1770’s and early 1780’s similarly feared the fate of returning into “enslavement” by the British Crown. Yet, their cherished freedom rested, to a large extent, on the peculiar institution of chattel slavery. This exquisite pastoral scene, in which nature’s bounty blesses the first couple and by extension the new nation which they have helped to birth, is founded upon the nearly invisible labor in bondage of people of color. One even wonders if Fraunces wrote himself into the composition, in the role of a servitor to the first couple, in the personage of the nursemaid, whose own precise position and status was ambiguous.

This wax and shell work might thus be read, retrospectively, as an act of partial disavowal, obliquely alluding to the uncompensated labor of multitudes, signified by the anonymous nursemaid, while redirecting the viewer’s attention away from an enslaved workforce to the triumphant primary couple, heralding a new era of purported freedom. In that sense, the tableau might be read as containing in microcosm, the underlying contradictions of the new republic, which would ultimately determine the climatic conflict eight decades later over the meaning and destiny of the American experiment.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Julie Miller (Library of Congress) for insights into Samuel Fraunces, to Robert Paul (Emory) for calling my attention to the Frenh myth of Fraunus, and to Laurie Kain Hart (UCLA) for noting the likely symbolism of the tableau’s owl.


  1. On March 5, 1785, Governor Clinton of New York wrote to George Washington that he had arranged to ship the Samuel Fraunces’ tableau, referencing a “…Box…marked GW the latter contains a Glass Case with Wax or Grotto Work, presented by Mr Francis to Mrs Washington and by him left with Mrs Clinton to forward. I have put it up with all possible Care and earnestly hope it may arrive safe, tho’ I confess I would not be willing to Insure it as it appears to me to be a very Ginger Bread piece of work—If any of the parts should get loose they must be fastened with a little Rosen and white Wax—this is the makers direction which he desired might be communicated.”
  2. Mauss argues that all gifts contain a balance of interest and disinterest, tactics and altruism. Such certainly appears to be the case with Fraunces’ gift. It seems clear that Fraunces was a genuine admirer of Washington and there is every reason to think the gift was heartfelt. Having said that, Samuel Fraunces had strong motivations to cultivate George Washington’s favor. He had emerged from the Revolutionary War, in which he served the Revolutionary cause at considerable personal costs, with many debts. In several letters to Washington in the mid 1780’s, Fraunces references his financial straits and pleads for Washington’s assistance. Congress did eventually agree with Fraunces’ position and awarded him payments for his services rendered as an undercover intelligence agent during the war.
  3. Speculatively , might Fraunces’ decision in 1768 to present in the Vaux Hall Gardens a life size tableau of Publius Scipio, popularly known as “Scipio Africanus’, surrounded by captured Carthaginian generals, have been an effort to depict an African or black-themed scene in a socially acceptable fashion?

For Further Reading

Brooke Baerman. 2019. “NEW ORDER FROM YOUR HAND, NEW LUSTRE FROM YOUR EYE”:THE ART, CRAFT, AND SCIENCE OF PHILADELPHIA SHELLWORK GROTTO.. University of Delaware, Master’s Thesis. (Accessible online)

Samuel Fraunces, letter to George Washington, 4 December 1783 (New York Decr 4th 83)

Laura Keim. Shellwork Shadow-Box Grottoes from Colonial Philadelphia,” Piecework Magazine, March/April 2004, 42-46.

Caroline Winterer. From Royal to Republican: The Classical Image in Early America. The Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Mar., 2005), pp. 1264-1290.

City of Life, City of Death: Two Paintings by Berthold Klinghofer

I am fascinated by two paintings created about four decades apart, by the same artist, Berthold Klinghofer (1893-1975), who is a distant cousin of mine through marriage.

“Czernowitz Ringplatz” ( 1911) depicts the fabled central square of Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovinan region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine) on the eve of World War One. (Note 1) Czernowitz, a predominantly German-speaking city renown for its vibrant Jewish cultural community, was referred to as “Little Vienna” during the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ringplatz seems to have been modeled on the Vienna’s own central imperial Ringstrasse center. The plaza was a favorite of painters and photographers and is chronicled in several surviving photographic postcards., as in the postcard below.:

The Ringplatz is nostalgically referenced by many Jewish residents and descendants, including in Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s book, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (University of California Press, 2011). The Ringplatz exemplified the cosmopolitan and pluralist ethos associated with Czernowitz in the final decades of the Hapsburg reign,. The first conference devoted to the Yiddish language was held there in 1908 in Czernowritz,where many significant German speaking Jewish intellectuals, artists, and literary figures, including Rosa Auslander and Paul Celan, came of age.

Klinghofer’s painting, created early in his career when he was about twenty years old, captures the vibrancy and dynamism of the city center, in a manner that evokes earlier Impressionist celebrations of urban bourgeois urbanity. In the foreground, a city trolly prepares to embark from its downtown terminus, its well dressed riders nearly all facing forward. To the trolly’s left we see an elegantly attired woman from the rear, sporting a red hat which seems to match the bright red trolly. Perhaps she has just alighted from the tram. Speculatively. we may be being treated to a first glimpse of the colorful urban center as seen by a new arrival to the town. (Note 2)

To the right of the terminus, we see three men in conversation, near two trees in full foliage; a man sports a beard that might signal his status as an observant Jew. In a touch of humor, we glimpse a man, perhaps a sailor, emerging from an open air walled pissoir or public urinal. Behind the terminus, heading in precisely the opposite direction as the tram, we see an open sedan automobile driving along through a crowded thoroughfare. Here and there we glimpse knots of people in animated conversation, standing, on benches, or shopping at open market stalls. Others walk alone, flaneurs making their way through the elegant cityscape. In the upper center we see the high wall of a grand four story building, decorated with festive advertising text. Everywhere, we see the untrammeled joy and interaction of metropolitan life, the coming together of those of different backgrounds amidst the hum of commerce and curiosity.

Don’t Forget (c. 1947)

Consider the horrific contrast to a work painted by the same artist about four decades later, “Don’t Forget: Crematoria,” an homage to the terrors of the Holocaust. (Note 4).

A crowd of naked inmates is forced by black-clad guards towards the blazing red oven of the crematorium. imaged as the gaping mouth of a monstrous creature. Where its nose would be a swastika is placed over the black outline of a Wehrmacht military helmet. Above the demonic face we see a chimney belching smoke from the remains of the murdered victims. Across a low wall are clustered the crowds of those, still clothed, destined for slaughter. A curving line of the victims stretches out as far as the eye can see. In the upper left, are written the words “Don’t Forget” in English and Hebrew, below a yellow Star of David.

It seems likely that the artist was mindful of the pivotal scene in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, in which the protagonist Freder, son of the industrialist, has a vision of the underground machine complex as “Moloch” the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.

In the film a giant head with a vast burning maw devours the laborers of the city. As in Klinghofer’s painting, smoke emerges from the vast mechanical figure. In Metropolis, helmeted warriors force unclad workers into the burning mouth; so too in the Holocaust painting are the victims fed to the merciless god of fire.

Berthold Klinghofer during the Holocaust

Berthold Klinghofer was a professor and respected artist in Bukovina before the war, and held art shows in Czernowitz in 1938, 1939 and 1940 as well as one in Bucharest. Then, like thousands of other Jewish Romanians, he was caught up in the deepening campaigns of anti semitic extermination.

Over the course of 1941, the fascist Romanian regime of Antonescu increasingly allied itself with Hitler’s Germany, in terms of military policy and violent anti-semitism. The Romanian military participated in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In appreciation of Romania’s service, the German high command awarded a section of the Soviet Union’s southern Ukraine, north of the Dnister River, known as Transnistria, to Romanian control. This territory was used primarily as a space of violent oppression for deported Jews from Bukovina, Galicia, Moldova and elsewhere. Some were directly placed in labor camps, others wandered desperately from place to place. Others were forced north further into Ukraine, where they were victims of murderous killings by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi SS mobile killing squads.

Some of Klinghofer’s travails during this period are documented in an article in the newspaper Die Stimme (The Voice) Mitteilungsblatt für die Bukowiner, the long running newspaper of Jewish Bukovina, in the May 1959 edition page 9. (German version at


Meeting of Three People Said to be Dead After 18 Years

On July 16, 1941, on the orders of the SS-Kommando stationed there at the time, attorney Sascha Pinkensohn, Prof. Berthold Klinghoffer, and Dr. Elias Weinstein were arrested in Czernowitz. In the gendarmerie command, to which they were transferred immediately afterwards, they learned that they were to be executed the following night. A short time later, they were escorted by a strong military patrol to the village of Revna, 7 kilometers from Chernivtsi, to be taken to the gendarmerie post there. Already on the way, Klinghoffer attempted suicide by poisoning.

As if by a miracle, these three prisoners escaped the cruel fate of the shooting: Klinghoffer, who was brought to Czernowitz by a patrol a short time later, managed to escape with his family to Bucharest. He was captured there by military authorities and, after horrible torture, was brought back to Czernowitz, from where he was deported to a penal camp in Transnistria. After the end of the war, Klinghoffer fled with his family to the free world and, on a detour via Canada, arrived in Milan, where he took up permanent residence with his wife and son.Berthold Klinghoffer is currently staying in the country [Israel} with his wife as a tourist.

The three friends, who experienced fateful moments together, were able to see each other again for the first time after 18 years in Tel-Aviv.

Berthold Klinghofer is listed in the “Lists of remits made to Jews from Romania that had been deported to Transnistria,” a set of documents held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Limited funds were transferred to Jewish deportees, in some cases proving the difference between life and death for those confined to Transnistria.

In my own family, my great grandparents Isak and Clara Auslander after their deportation from their home in Radautz (Radauti) were for a time sustained by financial transfers from their son in law, Dr. Robert (Berl) Klinghoffer. As a physician Robert was allowed to remain in his home town of Storojinet, Bukovina, during war, and was able to provide modest financial support to his wife Sara’s parents, and their grandson Severin Pagis (who would later be the Israeli poet and scholar Dan Pagis), who was eleven when the deportation took place.

Berthold Klinghofe was first cousin of Dr. Robert Klinghoffer .(Robert’s father was brother to Moshe Klinghofer, Berthold’s father). According to records in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Berthold received a payment from someone in Romanian territory on 9 Nov 1943. I do not know as of this writing who provided this support. The death date of Berthold’s father Moshe Klinghofer is listed as 1943, so it seems likely he died in Transnistria during the deportation period.

Robert’s son, Arthur Klinghoffer (born 1927 and now living in Israel) recalls being reunited with Berthold and his wife Stefania (Fanny, nee Segal) in 1944 in Czernowitz after the city had been liberated from Romanian fascist domination by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Arthur assisted Berthold and Fanny in creating paintings for the local Communist Party leadership. The next year Robert, Sara, and Arthur Klinghoffer, moved away from Soviet control and settled in Radautz, and in time made their way to Israel. Berthold and Fanny, in turn, made their way to Vienna, where Berthold became a member of the Viennese Academy of Art, and later settled in Milan, Italy. He and Fanny visited Arthur and his family in Israel in 1959, as noted in Die Stimme article above. Berthold died in 1975.

My great grandparents were confined for the deportation period of 1941-44 to a Transnistria work camp in Vindiceni, which is where my great grandfather Isak Auslander died in January 1944, two months before the Red Army liberated the area. I am not sure where precisely Berthold and Fanny were confined in Transnistria.

It is interesting, in any event, that in his postwar painting, Berthold chooses to depict the Holocaust through the motif of Auschwitz, a mechanized death camp, as opposed to the less centralized mass murders committed by beating, starvation, disease, and mobile killing squads that characterized the Final Solution in Transnistria and elsewhere in Ukraine. (It is sometimes said that the Holocaust in Central Europe was characterized by death through the gas chamber, and in the East, by death in the ravine ). It may be that the artist chose for the purpose of simplicity to center on what had become the universal recognizable signifier of the Holocaust, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. The term “Holocaust,” as is well known, references a burnt offering, and the painting encompasses the variegated fate of the Six Million within the imagery of a vast fire sacrifice.

The Two Paintings, Compared

Whatever the artist’s precise motivations, it occurs to me that the “Don’t Forget” work can be read as a precise inversion of the 1911 “Czernowitz Ringplatz” painting, created roughly four decades earlier. In the Czernowitz image, the fully clothed protagonists delight in the common public square, freely pursuing their own pathways in every direction through the city center. In “Don’t Forget,” all are coerced into a vast forced march that culminates in nakedness, forced into a single burning fire as the singular telos of all their journeys. We are as far as possible from the public plaza that symbolized the common space of civil society under conditions of cosmopolitan urbanity; now, the violent state is all powerful, endlessly consuming those have been utterly subjected to its destructive appetites. (Note 4)

To be sure, there is no way of knowing if Berthold even remembered his youthful, pre-Great War painting of the Ringplatz as he painted the Holocaust commemorative work after World War Two. Nonetheless, the structural contrasts are striking. Towering above the market scene of downtown Czernowitz were inscribed exuberant advertising signs, visual celebrations of the commercial joys of the city. Now, written above the unfolding terror of the death camp are only the somber written injunctions not to forget, and a reproduction of the Star of David which Jews were forced to wear under the Third Reich. The center foreground of the Ringplatz composition was a city red tram setting forth, its riders optimistically looking forward towards the viewer as they embark on their urban adventure. In contrast, in “Don’t Forget’ all the figures in the foreground are seen from the rear, as in the final moments of life they are pushed into the red mouth of the crematorium. Adjacent to the Czernowitz transport terminus were two vibrant green trees, a verdant oasis in the midst of the city; the landscape of Auschwitz is entirely denuded of natural beauty, as all life is offered to the red flames and turned to black smoke.

Finally, in Ringplatz the varied architecture of the cityscape serves a visual correlative to the diverse urban dwellers who saunter to and fro, each a bit different, each on his or her private errand. In the Holocaust painting, nearly all distinctiveness is leached away from the naked victims, and there is no trace of the beauty of architectural diversity. Only one squat ugly building dominates the field of vision, a relentless mechanism of mass murder. All signs of the lost world of cosmopolitanism have been eradicated, in this dreary city of the dead.

I am not sure if when creating “Don’t Forget,” Klinghofer was directly familiar with Paul Celan’s 1948 poetic meditation on the Holocaust, Todesfugue (Death Fugue) . Like Klinghofer, Celan was a native of Czernowitz and was subjected to slave labor in Transnistria, where his parents died. The poem famously repeats the line, “Black milk of dawn we drink you at night” (“Schwarze Milch der Frühe trinken dich nachts”) A similar monochromatic gloom permeates Berthold’s painting. We are infinitely far from Czernowitz’s Ringplatz, in which articulated shadows from the green trees indicate a precise time of day; here, in the death camp and its long aftermath, there is no conventional passage of time, no distinction between daytime and nighttime, between dawn and sunset, only the endless rhythm of the transport and the repeated machinery of mass death, in the perpetual shadowlands. The crematorium’s fires burn not only millions of human bodies, but all memories of the sun-drenched city, even as, paradoxically, the artist pleads with us to stay loyal to the impossible yet vital work of remembrance.


Note 1. Edgar Hauster, an authority on the history of Czernowitz and Bukovina, has kindly shared an entry from Klinghofer’s birth register, indicating that Berthold was born as Baruch Klinghoffer on May 20, 1893 in Paltinosa [Paltinoasa] in the vicinity of Gurahumora [Gura Humorului], son of Moses Klinghoffer, [propination licence] holder in Paltinosa, and Rifka Scheindel, daughter of Mendel and Sluwe Rath from Radautz:

Note 2. A recent copy of the painting by Victor Volkov was evidently acquired by the Czernowitz Art Gallery. (See an essay in German and Ukrainian by Tetyana Dugaeva: I am unsure of the provenance or current owner of the actual painting, which is reproduced along with the Volkov copy on the Czernowitz L Discussion Group blog at:

Note 3.. “Never Forgot: Crematoria” is one of eleven works on Holocaust and refugee themes by Berthold Klinghofer in the collection of the archives of the Ghetto Fighters Museum and Archives in Western Galilee, Israel. The works may be seen by entering the term “Klinghofer” into the search box. I am unsure of the date of the painting, other than it must be post-1945.

Note 4. Wikipedia offers a brief biography of Klinghofer in Italian at:

Scattered paintings by Bethold Klinghofer reproduced online suggests that “Don’t Forget” is rather cruder than most of his work. See for example: