Through a Glass Darkly: Images of Race, Region, and Reform is an online exhibition documenting conflicting representations of African-Americans, white Southerners, and reformers during and and immediately after the Civil War. In particular, it looks at the stereotypes popularized in the northern press, and the ways that these depictions were countered--or in some cases, reinforced--in the letters written for northern readers by freedmen's teachers and freedmen themselves.

Many of the northern volunteers who set up schools for former slaves during the Civil War had little or no previous acquaintance with African-Americans or white Southerners. Strangers in a strange-seeming land, the teachers wrote letters describing their encounters with these unfamiliar peoples. Sometimes these accounts reinforced common stereotypes; other times they undermined prevailing myths.

Students of the freedmen's schools also used their writing to offer sketches of Southerners and African-Americans, sometimes describing the harsh treatment slaves had received at the hands of owners, and at other times providing illustrations of their own zeal for learning and ambitions for the future.

During the same period, depictions of African-Americans and Southerners frequently appeared in northern publications such as the New-York Illustrated News, Harper's Weekly, and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. However, no single way of representing these groups prevailed. Instead, conflicting stereotypes were often employed on the same page.

Celebrated in both the northern press and the letters of the freedmen, freedmen's teachers were portrayed as reformers providing instruction in all "the arts of civilized life." But with the end of the war came a debate in the north about whether teachers should change their focus to include southern whites, and about whether the freedmen should be left alone to help themselves.

This site uses the letters written by freedmen and their teachers, articles and illustrations from northern periodicals, and other primary resources drawn from the collections of the American Antiquarian Society to invite users to explore the shifting and contradictory images of race, region, and reform disseminated in the North between 1861 and 1871.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly;
but then face to face
."--Paul, 13.12

describes the steps taken to free slaves through the Fort Monroe Doctrine and the Emancipation Proclamation. It explains the four questions that shaped the debate over emancipation and civil rights during the war, why education was seen as the best answer, and the the way African Americans responded through their accomplishments as scholars, workers, moral citizens, and soldiers.


It also offers a profile of freedmen's teachers Lucy and Sarah Chase, who grew up as part of a Quaker family deeply involved in reform movements. When the Civil War began, the sisters joined the New England Educational Association and traveled throughout the South founding and supervising schools. After the war, the two women continued to promote education and other reform efforts.

At the War's End

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The letters written by freedmen's teachers Lucy and Sarah Chase, Sarah Briggs' Smith, and Gertrude Allen can be found at the American Antiquarian Society, along with a small collection of letters written by their students, and the published the reports of their sponsors, the New England Educational Association and the American Union Commission. Transcriptions of many of these documents can be found on this site.


The document index includes a list of transcriptions and some scans of letters

from slave owners and auctioneers, students of the freedmen's schools, and freedmen's teachers. In addition, the document archive contains a collection of reports and articles published on issues related to race, slavery, and the freedmen before, during, and immediately after the Civil War.


The graphics index offers a linked list of all the images in the site. In addition to graphics from popular periodicals of the period, such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, the site offers images from the extensive collections of graphics--including lithographs, Civil War cartoons, and Civil war envelopes--at the American Antiquarian Society.

You can search the online catalogue to find items in the AAS collections or use the box at the bottom of each page to search for items in this exhibit.

Note: This site is intended to promote investigation of the cultural conversation that took place in the United States on race, region, and reform during and immediately after the Civil War. In order to provide a historically accurate account of that period, it has been necessary to include examples of offensive language and images.

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An American Antiquarian Society Online Exhibition
Curated by Lucia Z. Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College

All primary sources in this exhibit are in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.
This site and all contents © 2006 American Antiquarian Society