During the late 19th century, in the midst of the United States Civil War, two free Black men set out to plan an art exhibition. At a time when the future of chattel slavery and Black life hung in the balance of a national quarrel, these men, William H. Dorsey and Edward M. Thomas, negotiated their precarious freedoms through the collection and promotion of Black art.
Thomas, who worked for the government as a messenger of the House of Representatives, had established himself outside of work as a fervent collector of art and literature. His collection—which boasted 600 volumes, artworks, coinage, autographs, and archival documents—was stored in his home at the corner of Washington, D.C.’s K and 17th streets. Starting in 1862, Thomas would begin planning his dream exhibition, putting out a call for submissions in the Black press titled “Colored Inventors, Artists, Mechanics, &c.” Intent on creating an exhibition that celebrated Black innovation and artistry, Thomas found support and collaboration for the project working alongside other Black art collectors, like Dorsey.
The son of a runaway slave who settled in the city of Philadelphia in the early 1830s, Dorsey’s very status as a free man was made possible by fugitivity—if his father had not escaped, Dorsey’s life as an artist and collector wouldn’t have been possible. In the face of terror, opposition, and gratuitous violence, Black people during and after the period of chattel slavery found themselves toiling for beauty and possibility against great odds. As the “free” son of a “fugitive slave,” Dorsey’s quest for art and innovation cannot be separated from his father’s insistence on freedom. It is only through Black fugitivity that all other pursuits become possible.
Working to organize an art exhibition during the Civil War, Dorsey and Thomas wielded their power as art collectors at a moment charged with political possibility. Their collaboration raises a few questions about the role of the Black art collector and archivist in the midst of freedom struggle, among them: What does the art exhibition mean when the plantation remains? As records of Dorsey and Thomas’s lives as free men teach us, the racial history of property and ownership forged under slavery cannot be severed from the practice of collecting art and artifacts in a settler colony like the United States.
This question, posed by a member of the Black press and published in a Black publication, conveys an understanding of the relationship between Blackness and property in the Americas. Embedded in the question is an answer of sorts: “no one” would imagine that a collection of this kind could belong to a “colored man,” because an entirely different property relation precedes the advent of the Black art collector—one of Blackness and Black people as property to be owned.
Twain’s insistence on naming this scene “A Contraband Guide” is instructive. The choice indicates that, despite what “freedom papers” this unnamed Black cicerone may or may not have had, his freedom was always already “stolen” in the eyes of his white audience—his knowledge of Western art fraudulent by association. The scene asserts that those deemed property cannot be “free,” only fugitive. Where does this leave Thomas, the “unimaginable” Black art collector of 19th-century Washington, D.C.? Are he and Dorsey yet another pair of contraband guides? Where do the histories of actual enslaved craftspeople such as Dave the Potter fit alongside these narratives of the disparaged Black cicerone and the unfathomable Black art collector?
The collector class
Reaching out to Black elites specifically, Lincoln sought out Black community leaders, doctors, lawyers, and government officials to assist in the settling of lands that were already inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The meeting is a reminder that settler colonialism is a highly curated affair, and a project in which the so-called Black upper class or petite bourgeoisie is crucial. And though Thomas reportedly rejected Lincoln’s offer and its premise, it speaks volumes to the status he held that this is the role Lincoln envisioned for men like him.
We are left to imagine what Thomas might have gone on to do with his life had he not died just a few months after Emancipation, and how the abolition of slavery would have affected him both personally and professionally. An agent of the Contraband Association—an organization that provided support to fugitive slaves—at the time of his death, surely Thomas would’ve rejoiced to hear the news of slavery’s abolition.
Following Thomas’s death, Dorsey, who lived until 1923, continued to promote the history of Black artists and collectors during the post-Emancipation period. In response to an 1877 notice in the Alexandria, Virginia-based Black newspaper People’s Advocate about the sketches of prominent Black artists, Dorsey remarked on the legacy of Black art, a tradition marked by beauty and terror before and after Emancipation.
For decades now, Black historians, artists, and theorists have urged us to complicate romantic narratives about Emancipation. Their work has forced us to contend with Emancipation as an exhibition of the state’s creative power to both enslave and manumit at will. Articulating these fraught conditions of freedom, theorist Christina Sharpe has described Black life after Emancipation as living in “the afterlife of property.”
In drawing out matters of class, race, and fugitivity in Thomas and Dorsey’s lives, we are pushed to think critically about the role of the Black collector in the afterlife of property. These men dedicated themselves to Black art and community, knowing well that anti-Blackness jeopardized those very projects. Their persistence reminds us that, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, “beauty is not a luxury; it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure.”
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