A curator at the Gallery Oldham, a museum in Oldham, England, sent me this portrait a few days ago. A local gentleman named William Thorpe apparently took the photograph in the late 1860s or 1870s. The unidentified object in the sitter’s lap resembles, and may have been, an iron slave collar.
The portrait comes from the Oldham Photographic Society’s collections, which are on deposit at the Oldham Archives and Local Studies Library. The Society’s archivist, Christine Widdall, discovered it earlier this year while preparing a book to mark the Society’s 150th anniversary.
They cannot say for sure, but Christine Widdall and Sean Baggaley, the curator at Gallery Oldham who contacted me, believe that this may be a portrait of James Johnson, an African American man who spent his childhood as a slave in Brunswick County, N.C.
Johnson described his life in N.C. in a recently discovered memoir, The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), An Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America.
The Oldham Archives and Local Studies Library (which is neighbor to Gallery Oldham) holds the only known copy of The Life of the Late James Johnson. That copy was found in the Library’s collections less than a decade ago.
The Life of the Late James Johnson does not include a photograph of the author, however. Until now, we have assumed that no photograph of Johnson existed.
He was, after all, the kind of man that did not typically sit for portraits in the 19th century: an immigrant, a black man, an ironworker and blacksmith, an exhorter of the Gospel.
James Johnson’s memoir and the portrait (if it is him) came to be in Oldham because, after escaping from North Carolina, Johnson sailed to England and eventually made his home in Oldham.
He wrote The Life of the Late James Johnson in 1877 or 1878, but it was only published after his death in 1914 (hence the “Late” in the title). It is a compelling account of a slave’s life here in North Carolina and of a black man’s struggle for survival and dignity in Great Britain.
In 1860 African American slaves like Johnson made up more than 40% of the population in Brunswick and 16 other counties in eastern N.C. In seven of those counties, they were the majority.
Through Johnson’s words, we get a glimpse at our history through the eyes of one of those unsung and usually forgotten people.
For Johnson his memoir was not only a story about slavery. It was also a chronicle of a spiritual journey: his path from unbelief to salvation, darkness to light.
If this is a portrait of James Johnson, I wonder if he intended for it to accompany the publication of his memoir. Perhaps he had it taken when he first wrote his life story in the late 1870s.
If the unidentified object in the sitter’s lap is an iron slave collar, the portrait would have made an especially compelling frontispiece.
I’m only speculating, but I also wonder if, for some reason, presumably financial, Johnson’s plans for publishing his memoir stumbled when he finished writing in 1877 or 1878. Maybe that explains why he did not bring out the memoir at that time.
The portrait may then have been forgotten. Perhaps it was lost by the time that his daughter Alice published The Life of the Late James Johnson in 1914.
In a recent correspondence, Christine Widdall, the Oldham Photographic Society’s archivist, made a persuasive case for the figure in the portrait being James Johnson.
She draws no final conclusions, and neither do I, but I am impressed that a scholar so knowledgeable of Oldham’s history believes that there is at least a good chance that the figure in the portrait is James Johnson.
To learn more about Johnson, you can read the essay on The Life of the Late James Johnson that Chris Meekins and I wrote for the N.C. Office of Archives and History’s newsletter Carolina Comments in 2008. At that time, Roger Ivens, of the Oldham Archives and Local Studies Library, had just informed us of the recent discovery of Johnson’s memoir.
With some crucial help from Beverly Tetterton, at the New Hanover County Public Library’s N.C. Collection, Chris and I explored a variety of documentary sources that shed light on Johnson’s life.
We then wrote the essay to introduce The Life of the Late James Johnson to American scholars for the first time.
You can also read more about this possible portrait of James Johnson in a fascinating recent post on the Gallery Oldham’s blog.
To understand better the city and the times in which James Johnson lived, I’m also looking forward to reading Christine Widdall’s A Victorian Society: Oldham Photographic Society, The First 150 Years.
I don’t know very much about Oldham’s history, but I do know that the city was one of the earliest boomtowns of the Industrial Revolution. With more than 360 mills at its peak, Oldham had the largest number of textile spindles of any city in the world when James Johnson lived there.
I also have a sense that it was a city for dissenters: a hotbed for Chartists, Luddites, labor activists, cooperativists, suffragists and other radicals at war with the ways of the world and the treatment of the lowly.
That, of course, makes me wonder if, after all his long travels, that’s part of what drew James Johnson to Oldham. Maybe he had finally found a place that he felt at home.
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