How Two African American Collectors Celebrated Black Artistry Amid the Civil War

In 1863, as the Civil War was being fought on battlefields across the country, with a nation at war over the its future and the fate of chattel slavery, two free Black men planned an art exhibition that would travel the north, en route to the nation’s capital. Featuring pieces from their own carefully curated collections of art, William Henry Dorsey and Edward M. Thomas were creating not only a celebration of Black artistry, but boldly declaring that they would not be stifled by the indignities of the current moment.

The son of Thomas Dorsey, an escaped slave, William Henry Dorsey was born in Philadelphia in 1837. His father left had been one of the city’s premiere caterers and left his son a great amount of wealth. In Philadelphia, the younger Dorsey established himself first as an artist, then avid collector of landscapes and portraits by fellow Black artists like Robert S. Duncan, a preeminent landscape painter of international renown.

But Dorsey was foremost a scrapbooker, creating nearly 400 volumes by hand throughout his life, beginning in 1837 until his death in 1923 at the age of 86. They remain an invaluable record of early African American history and culture. Clippings from newspapers and journals relate first-hand accounts of lynchings, rising Black political fraternities, and, later, Reconstruction efforts.

Dorsey also gathered first-hand accounts from the lives of centenarians, who recounted to him the perils of the Middle Passage and fighting alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War. And all of this was supplemented by letters from Black luminaries like activist Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley.

frontispiece and title page showing an etching of Phillis Wheatley on the left and title and publishing info on the right

Frontispiece and title page of Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. William Henry Dorsey owned a later edition of this poetry collection.

At the time, Philadelphia was home to the most active group of Black collectors in the country. In 1896, a reporter from the Philadelphia Times visited Doresy’s “humble dwelling,” a rowhouse at 206 Dean Street. Once inside, the reporter found the entire top floor of Dorsey’s home—called “Dorsey’s Museum”—overflowing with art, archives, and other ephemera. An ancient mosaic was displayed beside a sculpture by famed Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen. The paintings were so exquisite that the reporter wrote that “one must confess to a feeling of surprise when it is found that a large majority of the excellent oil and water color paintings upon his walls are the work of negroes.”

Doresy told the reporter, “It has been my continual aim, as I have journeyed along, to gather every fragment of published matter concerning the colored race. … My portraits, books and letters are simply priceless, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to show and explain them to anyone feeling sufficient interest in them to visit me.”

A fellow Philadelphia native, Edward M. Thomas worked as a messenger for the House of Representatives. He was also a member of the Contraband Relief Association, an abolitionist organization which raised funds for formerly enslaved people.

Thomas was a fervent collector of art and archival documents, and his collection boasted over 500 rare books, paintings, and sculptures. Standout pieces included portraits by John G. Chaplin of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Marino Faliero, the Doge of Venice, as well as a piece by William Simpson and a delicate watercolor of an aged tower by his friend and peer, Dorsey.

An early account of Thomas’s collection was published in an 1860 edition of Weekly Anglo-African, a New York–based periodical. The writer remarked on the rare nature of Thomas’s sprawling collection, stating that “many valuable collections may be found among our people, which are acquired not merely for show, but for actual study and service.”

The article’s writer singled out remarkable pieces by John G. Chaplin and William Simpson amid the holdings. “Who would imagine that in Washington such a collection would be found to be the private property of a colored man,” the journalist asked, at a moment in which the country was increasingly on the path toward a war over what—and who—can be deemed property.

In 1862, Thomas began planning an exhibition that centered Black artists, an anomaly for the time. He put out a call for submissions, titled “Colored Inventors, Artists, Mechanics, &c.,” in various Black publications. Dorsey was among the Black collectors to answer the call. The burgeoning Black cultural elite, spanning activists, poets, and politicians, was creating its own creative infrastructure; W.E.B. Du Bois had consulted Dorsey’s records while writing The Philadelphia Negro, his groundbreaking 1899 study of urban Black life.

Their prominence, too, was growing. According to The Civil War Confiscation Acts: Failing to Reconstruct the South, by historian John Syrett, Thomas headed an institute of Black cultural leaders invited by President Abraham Lincoln to consult on a plan to colonize Liberia and Haiti with freed slaves. (Lincoln’s reasoning being the “unwillingness” of white Americans to accept their Black countrymen. After a contentious congress, the idea was abandoned.)

black and white newspaper clipping

An advertisement for an 1865 auction of Edward Thomas’s collection.

Thomas continued with his exhibition through 1863. It would have been a grand affair—landscapes, busts, photography and oral histories—but Thomas did not live to see its execution. He died that year, months after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The loss was keenly felt. A report in Frederick Douglass’ New National Era newspaper in 1874 recounted a memorial to Thomas by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, likely the first recorded sculpture in the United States to honor a Black subject. A “fine bust,” depicting the late Thomas as stern and proud. The sculpture was displayed in a place of honor in Dorsey’s museum, as the rest of Thomas’ collection was dispersed in various auctions. Much of its contents though were recorded by Dorsey, always the tireless archivist.

“I have not made any history,” Dorsey said. “I have simply collated, and to anyone wishing to write an essay or a volume upon the history or progress of the colored race in this nineteenth century, I have here material that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.”

William Henry Dorsey and Edward Thomas sought to document early African American history.Read MoreARTnews, News, Edward Thomas, William Henry DorseyARTnews.comRead More

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