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Augustus Washington: An African American Daguerreotypist

Augustus Washington was born to a former slave in Trenton, New Jersey in 1820 or 1821. As a teenager, he was drawn to abolitionist teachings and aspired to be a scholar. He was educated at Oneida Institute in New York, Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire and Dartmouth College.

One of the First Daguerreotype Studios in Hartford

Having learned the fledgling medium of photography to earn money while at Dartmouth from 1843 to 1844, Washington opened a daguerreotype studio in Hartford, Connecticut in 1846. Historian Martin R. Delaney wrote in 1852 that Washington was “an artist of fine taste and perception” who “numbered among the most successful Daguerreotypists in Hartford.”

Washington produced hundreds of daguerreotypes of residents of Hartford including poet Lydia Sigourney and lawyer Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley. During this time, he also photographed abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

Washington grew concerned by the passage of laws restricting African American rights. When Liberia was established in 1847, Washington was unsure about moving there. But by 1851 he wrote favorably of colonization, comparing the Liberian colony to the thirteen American colonies. Washington envisioned that African Americans could find there a “morality more pure, and liberty more universal, than it has yet been the lot of my people to enjoy.”

A New Life in Liberia

In 1853, Washington migrated to Liberia with his wife and two children. He continued to produce daguerreotype portraits in Liberia and later in Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Washington took portraits of a number of Liberia’s political and business leaders including Chancy Brown, sergeant-at-arms in the Senate, James Mux Priest, a Presbyterian missionary who later served as an associate justice of Liberia’s Supreme Court, merchant Urias Africanus McGill and several presidents of Liberia.

Washington was happy and prosperous in his new country. In 1854 he wrote “I love Africa, because I can see no other spot on earth where we can enjoy so much freedom.” Washington subsequently became a landowner, a major producer of sugarcane and served in the Liberian House of Representatives and Senate. He died in Monrovia in 1875.

A Valuable Photographic Record

Scholars have noted the striking symbolism in Washington’s portrait of John Brown. Photo historian Deborah Willis explains that Brown’s pose next to a flag with his hand raised “as if he was being sworn into service, represents the abolitionist as a passionate young crusader for justice.” Referring to his Liberian daguerreotypes, Willis notes: “Washington’s carefully composed stoic portraits of men exemplify the sense of pride that he and his subjects sought in their newfound country.”

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