In 1916, two African American women more than 100 years old attended an Emancipation Reunion in Washington, D.C. Dressed in ornate hats and tailored coats, Elizabeth Berkeley and Sadie Thompson stood tall and proud as they posed for photographs. Even through this aged black and white photo they carry an air of dignity, which leaves us to wonder: What did they live through? What did they see? And what did freedom look like through their eyes?
Photographs like this inspired Professor Barbara Krauthamer, of University of Massachusetts Amherst, to take a closer look at photography from 1850 to 1930, during the time of slavery and beyond emancipation.
On Saturday, and on Feb. 9, Krauthamer will offer a glimpse of that revolutionary movement through a lecture series at the Berkshire Museum, "What Did Freedom Look Like?"
Krauthamer's lectures will cover a collection of photographs taken from her newly released book, "Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery," which she co-wrote with Professor Deborah Willis of New York University. Krauthamer's book and lecture series come just in time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"[Professor Krauthamer's] particular angle on the concept and how she presents the information is really quite interesting," said Craig Langlois, Berkshire Museum's Education and Public Program Manager. "[Her presentation] fits the museum model, as it's based very much in a visual narrative that's tied in with historical context."
Krauthamer began studying slavery and emancipation after receiving her PhD from Princeton in 2000. But she became fascinated with photography from that era when she stumbled across a wanted notice from 1863. The notice showed a photograph of an enslaved woman named Dolly who had run away. It provided a detailed description of Dolly's face, teeth and mannerisms and suggested that she had been swept off by a white suitor.
While the document as a whole intrigued Krauthamer, the image itself really got her thinking.
"I was just so captivated by that photograph," she said. "I didn't know that slave holders were taking pictures of people they owned and saving them for their own possessions."
These photographs, taken by slave holders, northern photographers and former slaves, provide an intimate view of life during that time.
Krauthemer cautioned that the photographs along with much of the written historical records must be read "with a careful and critical eye," since they were usually filtered through the perspectives of white slave holders.
While some of the photographs were used as justifications for slavery, Krauthamer said many of them still can give more insight into that period, and "offer a counter point to those written records."
Each one of these photographs tell a powerful story, from a portrait of a reunited family to newly freed sisters posing with a white abolitionist.
"What I like about all of the photographs is the sense that they offer us this connection to the past," said Krauthamer, "but I think they also suggest all of the things we could never know."
To complete some of the stories told through these images, both Krauthamer and Willis worked diligently to piece together fragments of information from 19th-century newspapers and biographies.
"We did a lot detective work, drawing on some wonderful scholarship that has been written about some of the people and the photographers," Krauthamer said, " but a lot of it still remains a mystery. "
In the first conversation in "What did Freedom Look Like?" on Saturday, Krauthamer will discuss the use of photography during slavery and the abolitionist movement, focusing on how photography was used both in campaigns against slavery and as a means to justify slavery. In part two, on Feb. 9, she will introduce photography and emancipation through eyes of northern photographers and former slaves.
"I envision each lecture as standalone discussions of these topics that come out of the book and other research that I've done," she said. "My intention is to give a presentation and then really have a conversation, rather than a classroom."
If you go ...
What: 'What did Freedom Look Like?'
Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield
When: Saturday, and Saturday, Feb 9, at 10 a.m.
Admission: Free with Museum admission of $13 for adults and $6 for children under 18. Children 3 and under get in free. Seating is limited, so reservations are encouraged.
Information: (413) 443-7171, ext. 10.