Augustus Washington: Finding Freedom Through the Daguerreotype

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By Deborah Willis

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2021

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Between 1840 and 1845, a period known among scholars as “Daguerreomania,” exhibitions of and advertisements for daguerreotypes abounded. In Europe and America, photographers displayed their artistry in this new process.

During this time a number of free Black men established themselves as daguerreotypists and photographers. For instance, Augustus Washington worked as a daguerreotypist and studio photographer, making images of Black and white families, key figures in the abolitionist movement of the time such as John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, clergymen, celebrities, scholars, and businessmen. 

Washington gained recognition as a daguerreotypist in Hartford in the 1840s. He advertised and promoted his gallery in one of Connecticut’s antislavery newspapers and in other Hartford papers, stating that, as David O. White notes in “Augustus Washington, Black Daguerreotypist of Hartford” (The Connecticut Historical Society, January 1974), his was the oldest daguerreian establishment in the city and that he employed some of the best artists in the country.

Hartford Courant, Octobre 12, 1852

Carol Johnson, in “Faces of Freedom: Portraits from the American Colonization Society Collection” (The Daguerreian Annual, 1996), tells of his early life. Washington was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His father was formerly enslaved, and his mother was of Asian ancestry. He was well educated by the time he reached his teenage years, and he studied assiduously, in his words, “to elevate the social and political position of the oppressed and unfortunate people with whom I am identified.” He was influenced by both anti-slavery publications and by local abolitionists.

After a brief career as a teacher in Brooklyn, Washington moved to Hartford in 1843, opening a daguerreian studio to help finance his education at the Kimball Union Academy in Plainfield, New Hampshire, and later at Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover. In 1844 he returned to Hartford to teach at the Colored District School operated by the Reverend James C. Pennington at 12 Talcott Street. Pennington and his wife taught and served as administrators at a school in the lower level of Pennington’s church. Although Washington only taught for two years, he impressed Thomas Robbins, a visiting clergyman, with his skills as an educator, Stacey Close notes in “A Voice for Freedom” (Connecticut Explored,Winter 2012/2013).

Two years later Washington opened his Daguerreian Gallery in the Wavery Building; by May 1847 he had moved to the Kellogg Building at 136 Main Street, across the street from the Wadsworth Atheneum. Although he was not Hartford’s first daguerreotypist, he was one of the most successful, according to Nancy Finlay in “Portrait of a Young Man” (Connecticut Explored, Winter 2004/2005).

Augustus Washington, “John Brown,” c. 1846 – 1847. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
According to the National Portrait Gallery, this is the earliest known likeness of radical abolitionist John Brown of Torrington.

In the early 1850s Washington continued to advertise, identifying that his Daguerreian Gallery was near Center Church in Hartford. He was successful in attracting clients in Hartford and from New Hampshire. An ad in New York’s The Ram’s Horn on November 5, 1847 stated, “Washington is now executing beautiful and correct miniatures of the New York plan from $1.50 to $10.00 according to the size and style of the plates, cases, frames or lockets.” When he studied at Dartmouth, Washington had taken portraits primarily of white families. Martin R. Delaney, abolitionist and historian, wrote in The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the of the Colored People of the United States (1852),

Augustus Washington, an artist of fine taste and perception, is numbered among the most successful Daguerreotypists in Hartford, Connecticut. His establishment is said to be visited daily by large numbers of the citizens of all classes; and this gallery is perhaps the only one in the country that keeps a female attendant, and dressing-room for ladies. He recommends, in his cards, black dresses to be worn for sitting; and those who go unsuitably dressed are supplied with drapery and properly enrobed.

An antislavery activist, Washington closed his Hartford studio in 1853 and moved to Monrovia, Liberia in West Africa. He believed that leaving the United States was the best way to reform the practice of slavery and the only way he could live freely. He gave his perspective in the New-York Daily Tribune on July 3, 1851:

I have been unable to get rid of a conviction, long since entertained and often expressed, that if the colored people of this country ever find a home on earth for the development of their manhood and intellect, it will be first in Liberia or some other parts of Africa. A continent larger than North America is lying waste for want of the hand of science and industry.

Strange as it may appear, whatever may be a colored man’s natural capacity and literary attainments, I believe that, as soon as he leaves the academic halls to mingle in the only society he can find in the United States, unless [he]be a minister or lecturer, he must and will retrograde. And for the same reason, just in proportion as he increases in knowledge, will he become the more miserable. He who would not rather live anywhere on earth in freedom than in his country in social and political degradation has not attained half the dignity of his manhood.

In Monrovia, Washington continued his daguerreotype business, bringing with him from the U.S. chemicals, plates, and cases in order to continue to make portraits of Black Americans living in Liberia. “I love Africa,” he said in a letter, “because I can see no other spot on earth where we can enjoy so much freedom… . I believe that I shall do a thousand times more good for Africa and add to our force intelligent men.”

Attributed to Augustus Washington, James B. Yates, c. 1856 – 1858. American Colonization Society Records, Library of Congress. Yates was the secretary of the Liberia senate in 1857.

Washington’s portrait business was an immediate success. He sold roughly $500 worth of portraits during his first five weeks of business in Liberia. He charged $3 each for his  daguerreotypes, and he made between $20 and $40 per day from his pictures. News of Washington’s photo studio spread by word of mouth, and he hired young boys to go out into the community and attract customers, as A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington African American Daguerreotypist (National Portrait Gallery, 2000) notes. A large number of these portraits are currently housed in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division as part of the American Colonization Society Records. (The American Colonization Society was organized in 1817 to “resettle” African Americans in Liberia.) In the short time that Washington lived in Liberia, he made an impressive number of portraits in studio.

In 1854 Washington photographed the McGill family, and his surviving portraits include one of a young Black woman, possibly Sarah McGill Russwurm. Sarah married John Brown Russwurm, who with Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper, in 1827. Russwurm was an early proponent of emancipation. Sarah was the only daughter of George McGill, a minister, merchant, and teacher, and his wife Angelina. In 1830, when Sarah was a child, the McGills moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Liberia. 

Augustus Washington, “Unidentified woman, probably a member of the Urias McGill family,” c. 1854 – 1855. American Colonization Society Records, Library of Congress. This portrait is possibly of Sarah McGill Russwurm

According to historian Winston James, Sarah McGill married Russwurm when she was a young woman. Little is known about her except that she was well educated and a businesswoman; she and her husband imported beef, port, mackerel, tobacco, nails, and soap. She worked side by side with her husband, “at his elbow” according to Winston James in The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm (New York University Press, 2010). Washington photographed her in his studio a few years after her husband’s death. Washington likely was commissioned by the McGill family, which was known for its philanthropy and committed to helping families who immigrated to Liberia in the 1850s.

Washington closed his studio in 1859 and later was elected to Liberia’s House of Representatives and Senate. He owned 1,000 acres of land, went into trading, and became editor of the New Era in 1873. Washington died in Liberia on June 7, 1875. National Portrait Gallery Senior Curator of Photographs Ann Shumard writes, “Augustus Washington appears never to have regretted his decision to immigrate to Liberia.” The African Repository posted the news of his passing in October 1875.

Hon. Augustus Washington, editor of the New Era, died at Monrovia on Monday June 7. He had [been]brought from his extensive farm on the St. Paul’s river a few days before …. His death is justly mentioned as a calamitous event for his family and a severe loss to Western Africa generally. Mr. Washington was favorably known in the New England States, where he was prominently identified with various schemes for the elevation of his race. He acquired a high reputation as a skillful daguerreotypist at Hartford, Conn., from which city he removed to Liberia in 1853. Nothing could induce him to return to his country, having acquired a handsome property and freedom and a home in his ancestral land.

Dr. Deborah Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. 

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