Images Worth a Thousand Words On March 1, W&L’s University Collections of Art and History will open its newest exhibit, "Breaking the Chains: Ceramics and the Abolition Movement."
In 1788, Benjamin Franklin wrote to the English potter Josiah Wedgwood to thank him for the gift of anti-slavery medallions. In the letter, he exclaimed that he was “persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best-written pamphlets in procuring favor to these oppressed people.”
Various ceramic pieces such as those medallions soon will be on display at Washington and Lee University as part of University Collections of Art and History’s latest exhibit, “Breaking the Chains: Ceramics and the Abolition Movement.” The nine-month exhibit will open on March 1 in Watson Pavilion and will be on display through Dec. 31, 2019.
Ron Fuchs, W&L curator of ceramics and manager of the Reeves Center, will hold a public lecture to discuss the collection on March 14 at 5 p.m. in Northen Auditorium. His talk is free and open to the public.
While this is the first official exhibition of abolitionist ceramics at the university, the Reeves Center has displayed many of the pieces for years, and it now has one of the most extensive collections of ceramics in existence from the abolitionist period.
From 1775 to 1860, a range of ceramics from Europe and America were made to advance the cause of abolition. The ceramics included everything from elaborate vases that depict detailed scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the less grand, but equally moving, children’s mugs featuring images of slave auctions.
According to Fuchs, “Abolitionists knew that a picture was worth a thousand words and objects decorated with anti-slavery images could be used to raise awareness of the plight of enslaved people, give people a way to show that they were supporters of abolition, and to sell to raise money for abolitionist activities.”
While there will be more than a dozen pieces of ceramics on display, some particularly interesting pieces include the medallions made at Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria Factory, in Staffordshire, England, between 1787 and 1800. The image on the small medallion depicts a slave, kneeling in chains and imploring “am I not a man and a brother?” This scene was the first, most common, and most effective anti-slavery image created by the abolitionist movement.
Another compelling piece is a child’s mug, which depicts a slave auction and bears an anti-slavery poem meant to teach a child a stark lesson about the cruelty of slavery.
Not unlike specific causes supported today, and much like sporting a bumper sticker or wearing a T-shirt for propaganda uses, these ceramic pieces were not used in secret. The medallions, in particular, were often given away for free and worn as jewelry to show others which side of the cause the wearer supported.
In their prime, the ceramics had much more of an immediate effect and influence on society than a 25-page tract might have had.
“We have documentation that shows where people talked about how they wanted people to see the ceramic pieces in their homes and on their tables because they hoped others would see it and think about what it means,” said Fuchs. “The imagery raised awareness, and it raised sympathy, and it’s also a signal that they personally were a supporter. They were reinforcing a group identity.”
Many of the ceramic pieces were purchased by women. “In many cases, these objects were bought by women who used them as a way to make their voices heard at a time when they lacked the right to vote and other ways to effect political change,” Fuchs said.
However, one aspect of the exhibit that Fuchs encourages visitors to note is how a modern-day viewer may interpret the images, and how they appear to a new generation of advocates.
“In some ways these objects are racist. These objects were made by white people, for white people. While white abolitionists thought slavery was wrong, all but a few believed the stereotypes that people of African descent were inferior and needed white people to help them achieve their freedom,” said Fuchs. “Images of enslaved Africans as passive supplicants may also have been designed to reassure white audiences that free blacks would pose no threat.”
While the pieces can be seen as controversial today, Angelina Grimké, a Southern abolitionist, in 1836 attempted to explain their meaning: “Until the pictures of the slave’s sufferings were drawn and held up to public gaze, no Northerner had any idea of the cruelty of the system, it never entered their minds that such abominations could exist.”
Visit the UCAH webpage for more information about University Collections of Art and History.