A fascinating new collection of family portraits from the early 1900s depicts the lives of African Americans in the U.S. less than 40 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard, currently being displayed at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, offers an unparalleled glance inside the era immediately after Civil War reconstruction, a time period that is often overlooked.
Taken between 1900 and around 1912, the photographs are the legacy of Bullard, a native Worcesterer who left behind a trove of over 5,400 glass negatives at the time of his death in 1918.
Among them are 236 portraits of African Americans and Native Americans mostly from the Beaver Brook community taken while they were still coming to grips with living as free people.
James J. Johnson, of Narragansett, Rhode Island and Jennie Bradley Johnson, a migrant from Charleston, South Carolina, pose with their daughters Jennie and May in 1900. He worked as a coachman and belonged to the King David Masonic Lodge and died shortly after the portrait was taken and Jennie would go on to work as a laundress
Richard and Mary Elizabeth Ward Wilson in 1902. Both were Southern migrants – Richard from Virginia and Mary from New Bern, North Carolina – and married in Worcester in 1905. She worked as a housekeeper and nurse and he was a laborer
Hattie, Clarence, and James Harold Ward, the children of the Wilsons, photographed in 1901. James Harold, better known as ìBoot, eventually became a jazz drummer, Clarence, given the moniker ìHooks, became the owner of a restaurant. and Hattie worked as an assistant in a dentist’s office
The collection features 80 of the images, and Bullard identified about 80 per cent of the subjects, allowing the exhibition to tell the specific stories of the people in the portraits and build an accurate historical context.
As a white resident of the ethnically diverse Beaver Brook neighborhood, Bullard immortalized his subjects in their yards, porches, gardens, and parlors, providing a photographic narrative of migration and resettlement in the aftermath of Emancipation and Reconstruction.
Many of the photographs were left untouched for nearly a century after Bullard’s death in 1918, when his brother Charles inherited his life’s work, and shelved the glass negatives for the next 40 years, until they were purchased by Frank Gaudette of East Brookfield.
Ralph Mendis was born in 1897 and is seen here at approximately age five in 1902. His mother, Frances, was part of the New Bern, North Carolina, migration to Worcester, and his father was one of a handful of Jamaican immigrants who resided in the city. Rhode Island records indicate that Ralph died in 1906, though the cause is unknown
Virginia-born coachman Thomas A. Dillon and his wife, Margaret, a domestic servant and native of Newton, Massachusetts, pose in the parlor of their home at 4 Dewey Street with children Thomas, Margaret, and Mary in 1904. A poster on the wall commemorates President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Worcester Agricultural Fair in 1902
Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice, and Dorothea, in about 1904. A native of Troy, New York, Schuyler migrated to Worcester in 1887 to work for the town’s Wire Works and later worked for the Boston and Maine Railroad. Active in All Saints Episcopal Church, the Masons, and Knights of Pythias, Schuyler was the oldest member of the Worcester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when he died in 1956
In 2003, his grandson Dennis Lebeau sold them to Frank J. Morrill, a retired history teacher and collector from Charlton. Like the two previous owners, Morrill was interested exclusively in Bullard’s streetscapes, and didn’t know the identities of the portraits’ subjects.
It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Morrill’s granddaughter, Hannah, came across the negative of a portrait with a tiny number scratched in the corner, that Morril suddenly remembered Bullard’s logbook, which he had purchased along with the negative collection, and realized the stories behind the portraits had been recorded.
Morrill linked the number ’76’ etched in the corner of the negative with Bullard’s logbook and discovered the identity of the subject: Celie Perkins, who later research would reveal to have been born a slave in South Carolina.
Siblings Rose, Edward, and Abraham Perkins, pictured in 1900, were the children of King Perkins, a South Carolina slave who fathered 23 children and died in 1912 at age 110. Migrating from Camden, South Carolina, the Perkins siblings resettled in Worcester, later aiding in the relocation of additional family members and neighbors to the city
Portrait of the Reverend William B. Perry, his wife Sallie G. Perry, and their children Bessie and William Jr. taken in about 1908. All born in Virginia, they had this portrait made in front of the parsonage of the Bethel AME Church, one of the city’s three black churches, where Perry served as pastor. A black newspaper described Perry as ìa towering pillar of strength in the educational, religious, Masonic, and political world
Lillian, Luvenia, and Cora Ward (pictured in 1902) were the daughters of William H. and Arries Ann Ward, who migrated from eastern North Carolina, where they had been born as slaves. After defending his wife from an attempted rape by a white man, William fled north to Pomfret, Connecticut, where Arries Ann joined him in 1889. They subsequently moved to Worcester and parented eleven children
William Bullard’s camera reflected in a mirror in 1911. The native Worcesterer left behind a trove of over 5,400 glass negatives at the time of his death in 1918 – 80 of them depicting African American families are being shown in the Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard exhibition, currently being held at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts
He and Hannah then worked through the glass negative collection numerous times, and in January 2014 he and Clark University history professor Janette Thomas Greenwood and her class began researching the stories behind Bullard’s subjects, constructing rich individual narratives and community history.
A book featuring the photos is set to be released on October 24.