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Slavery and Freedom in the White House Collection: Enslaved Artisans

This exhibit explores the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States through art, furnishings, chinaware, and other objects in the White House. This exhibit was curated by White House Historical Association historian Sarah Fling.

Enslaved labor was not limited to plantations. Painters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, sculptors, and craftsmen in the early United States relied on enslaved people to work in studios, shops, and workspaces, especially in cities such as Charleston, Annapolis, and Savannah.

The life of an enslaved craftsman often differed significantly from that of an enslaved agricultural or domestic worker. Enslaved craftsmen often had more freedom of movement, as some shopped for materials at local markets, while others traveled to cities and other states to work. These experiences broadened the worldview of enslaved workers, allowing them to meet other enslaved people as well as free African Americans. Some enslaved artisans also had access to tools and additional income, both of which could be used to pursue and purchase freedom.

Enslaved artisans were commonplace throughout the Atlantic World; this mid-nineteenth-century print shows enslaved apprentices working for a white shoemaker, who appears to be punishing one of the men.

John Carter Brown Library at Brown University accessed via Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Although these laborers were often extremely skilled, their artistic contributions often went undocumented or overlooked. Pieces in the White House Collection illuminate the unsung role of enslaved artisans in early American decorative arts.

John Shaw

John Shaw, a Scottish cabinetmaker who rose to prominence in eighteenth-century Annapolis, Maryland, is an example of the silences that come with studying enslaved artisans. Shaw owned enslaved men, women, and children throughout much of his life. Some of these individuals likely labored in his Annapolis shop alongside free or indentured workers, as was common in Annapolis and other cities in early America. While we may never know the names of the enslaved people who labored in Shaw's household and shop, their presence allowed Shaw and his apprentices to create pieces like this one.

Clark Mills and Philip Reed

American sculptor Clark Mills relied on the labor of enslaved artisan Philip Reed throughout his career. Born into slavery in 1820, Reed worked in Mills’s foundry, assisting in the process of casting bronze sculptures as well as plasterwork. Reed likely assisted with the casting of the statue of Andrew Jackson standing in Lafayette Park. He is most notable for working on the Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol Dome, unveiled in 1863. While working on the project, Reed earned his freedom through the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act (signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862). Reed continued to live in D.C., working as a plasterer until his death in 1892.

Reed and the other workers at Mills's foundry cast the bronze Statue of Freedom from the plaster model below. A receipt for his work on the project can also be seen in the gallery below.

Charles Willson Peale and Moses Williams

Moses Williams, an enslaved artist, is often left out of conversations related to the talent of his owner, eighteenth-century portraitist Charles Willson Peale, who has many works in the White House Collection. Sometime during the 1770s, Moses Williams was born into slavery in the Peale household to parents Lucy and Scarborough.

Though Peale went on to free Lucy and Scarborough, Moses continued to work as an enslaved apprentice for several decades. When Charles Willson Peale opened the Philadelphia Museum in 1786, he trained Moses in object display, taxidermy, and silhouette-making—a talent which would earn him his freedom. Using the physiognotrace—an early silhouette machine— Williams traced and quickly reproduced the likenesses of sitters at the museum. According to Peale’s son, Rembrandt: “This soon became so profitable, that my father insisted upon giving him his freedom one year in advance.”

This silhouette of Moses Williams labels him a “cutter of profiles.”

Collection of the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery, Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

An accomplished cutter of profiles, Moses remained in the paid employ of Peale and later started a family in Philadelphia with the money he earned from his work. Williams lost business as silhouettes declined in popularity, and very little is known about the rest of his life.