It’s unclear what ambitions Augustus Washington had growing up in Trenton, NJ, circa the 1820s and 1830s. It definitely wasn’t daguerreotypist. But a daguerreotypist he became – in 1843, to pay for his tuition at Dartmouth.
While growing student debt forced him from school one year later, daguerreotypes stuck, and became Washington’s bread and butter: He opened his own studio in Hartford, CT, in 1846, where he spent the next handful of years taking pictures of locals looking to experience his new-fangled technology. Below you see an ad for said studio, with the caption, “Washington is at home, and daily executing beautiful and correct Miniatures, equal to any in this country, at his uncommonly cheap prices.”
But Washington was more than a talented artist. He was an activist. The son of a former slave father and an Asian mother, Washington fought racial injustice his whole life. But “that curious institution” of slavery was still extremely entrenched in the 1840s and 1850s; Washington was well aware he and his allies faced an uphill battle, and at times he felt hopeless, an emotion evident in this 1851 quote Washington gave the New York Tribune:
“Strange as it may appear, whatever may be a colored man’s natural capacity and literary attainments, I believe that, as soon as he leaves the academic halls to mingle in the only society he can find in the United States, unless he be a minister or lecturer, he must and will retrograde.”
Washington grew so frustrated with America’s intractable discrimination that in 1853 he moved his family – a wife and two children – to Liberia, where many like-minded black Americans were establishing their own nation.
Once there, Washington took his place behind the camera again, this time turning his lens to burgeoning Liberia’s political, military, and social elite. Below are a few of those images. In each and every one we see self-assuredness, independence and pride, all evidence of the subjects’ and Liberia’s determination to create something beautiful, a new world, from something grotesque, old hate.
These are some of Washington’s last professional images. He transitioned from daguerreotypes to the more lucrative sugar cane business in the late 1850s, and then to politics: He was both a congressman and senator in the 1860s, including a stint as speaker of Liberia’s House of Representatives, from 1865-1869. Washington died in 1875, having never again setting foot inside the States.
Here, in case you’re interested – and you should be – are lucky number 7 of Washington’s daguerreotypes, all taken during his early years in the then-new nation of Liberia, and all Found in the LOC.