From The Curator’s Desk – Why Do Curators Wear Gloves?

Freedom Center Voices
July 7, 2023

From the Curator’s Desk – Why Do Curators Wear Gloves?

Curators and experts who handle objects wear gloves for important reasons. One reason is that our hands naturally have oils, dirt, and dust on them. These things may not seem harmful, but they can actually damage the objects. The oils and dirt can make the delicate artifacts deteriorate more quickly. Some objects may even have dangerous substances which we don't want on our bodies. For example, weighted silk can contain arsenic and old medical instruments contain mercury which can be harmful.

To avoid leaving marks, dirt, or fingerprints on objects, curators wear gloves. Curators have used cotton gloves in the past but have found a few issues with the material. They can get caught on objects, especially ones made of rough wood or sharp metal. Also, cotton gloves can't protect against water or chemicals, which can be a problem for certain objects.

Curators and people handling objects at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center use nitrile gloves. These gloves are great because they are water and chemical resistant. They also have a more textured surface that helps with gripping objects. With nitrile gloves, curators can focus on appreciating the beauty and history of the artifacts without worrying about accidentally damaging them.

The next time you visit a museum or gallery, take a moment to think about the hard work of curators. By simply wearing gloves, they make sure our cultural treasures are preserved for everyone to research, view, and enjoy for years to come.

Reading History and Civics in Middle and High School

Freedom Center Voices
June 30, 2023

Reading History and Civics in Middle and High School

A colleague recently dropped by my office to discuss a radio report she heard on her commute. The May 3, 2023 NPR report “History and Civics Scores Drop for U.S. Eighth Graders on National Test” had her wondering how the Freedom Center could support parents of middle and high schoolers who want to improve their students’ reading skills in history and civics.  My answer was – that’s a great idea! Here is information for parents who want to know more.

How do I know if my child is really “reading:”

To truly read a written text, you must be comprehending what is written. Pronouncing the words on the page doesn’t automatically equate to understanding the meaning conveyed by those words. You must discuss the text with your students to gauge if they are comprehending what they read.

Do you read all texts the same way?

No. You change how you read depending upon the text. You engage different reading skills and practices when reading a poem compared to reading a math story problem. You also employ different skills and practices when you read fiction versus non-fiction. Reading a novel and following character and plot development requires a different skillset compared to pulling important information from a newspaper article or chapter in a science textbook.

When students enter middle and high school, they have learned the basic skills and strategies for reading and comprehending texts across different genres. However, they do not yet have the reading skills they need to successfully understand the complex, discipline-specific texts required in middle and high school. Reading instruction cannot end in elementary school. Middle and high school teachers need the time and support to engage students with discipline-specific texts – and I’m not talking about textbooks. Students need to learn to read the type of texts they will encounter throughout their life.

What should students be reading to improve their history and civics literacy?

As the NPR articles states, “Teaching history is built on the foundation of reading comprehension.” We read to engage with the past. Of course, reading non-fiction texts is terrific. However, not everyone enjoys it. Non-fiction in smaller doses, such as content on websites, might have more appeal. Credible institutions, such as the Freedom Center, have texts about various historical events and people. Historical fiction is also a great way to learn about past societies.

Civics teaches us to be citizens in our participatory democracy. Therefore, we need to stay informed about the issues our country is facing. As the NPR report noted, “…we need to make sure our kids are engaged citizens, and that means they need to be informed with knowledge and the skills to do this work. And that takes every class.” Newspaper and magazine articles are essential reading. Books about civic engagement and social justice reveal how our system operates and how citizens make societal, political and economic changes.

Importantly, we need to teach students to identify credible sources. This is an essential civic reading skill. There is a lot of information out there, especially online, and not all of it is based upon facts and evidence.
Here is just one source that can help you judge the credibility of websites:
Here is one about the credibility of sources in general:

How can I get my student to read history and civics texts? Obviously, you can’t force your student to read, but there are things you can do to encourage reading.


1. Read together. Parents typically stop reading to their students around middle school. However, you should continue to read with your students. If you are reading the same texts, you can have conversations about the content, and that improves comprehension for both of you.

2. Talk (and read) about current events. Talk to your kids about the current events you read about. Seek out and read articles on topics that interest your student, and then ask them to read the articles. You can text them the link and talk about it over dinner or in the car. Ask them for their opinions and have them justify those opinions with facts and evidence. Ask them to evaluate the opinions expressed by others based upon provided evidence.

3. Encourage exploration. Smartphones provide us with access to unlimited information, including quality publications. Subscribe to some of them and provide your student with access. If your student shows interest in a particular topic, take a trip to the library (in person or online) and learn more together.

Dr. Amy Bottomley is the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She has earned a B.S. in Secondary Education: Social Studies, a M.Ed. in Reading Education, and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Amy has taught high school social studies and reading courses in Ohio and Maryland, as well as teacher education courses at the University of Cincinnati. She is dedicated to teaching for social justice and supporting teachers in their pursuit of inclusive classroom practices. Amy can be contacted at (513) 333-7586 or at

Freedom Center Spotlight: Meili Clark

Freedom Center Voices

Meili Clark

She/ Her

Graphic Designer, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Fast Facts


Barberton, Ohio


Gardening, jigsaw puzzles and ceramics

Fun Fact

I'm a retired ice cream scooper and also a former employee of Holtman's Donuts, so obviously I have a sweet tooth.

Freedom Center Spotlight
Meili Clark joined the Freedom Center in the summer of 2018 as a graphic designer.

What does your job entail?

My job is to steward the museum's visual brand. So anywhere the logo appears, or anything that we prepare for guests or visitors, or even for staff to use in their day-to-day business—I'm in charge of creating those materials and making sure they fit our brand standards.

What has been your favorite project at the Freedom Center?

I love getting to work on special exhibits that travel to the museum. One of my personal favorites was a Smithsonian traveling exhibit called MEN OF CHANGE: POWER. TRIUMPH. TRUTH.

I really enjoyed that show because it debuted at our museum. We were the first venue and it was really incredible to get the first peek.  It featured photography and quotes—it was just a visually stunning exhibition and it felt special to be part of opening it for the first time.

If you could switch jobs with anyone for a week, what job would you want to try?

If I could try out any job in the museum field, I think I'd go for an archivist. I'm not familiar with everything they do, but I really like to organize just about anything. I find labeling, filing and alphabetizing so satisfying. In another life, I think I would have enjoyed getting to hunker down and organize information or collections.

What's a piece of advice you would give to someone starting this type of work? 

For anyone starting out in non-profit, justice or advocacy work—a lesson I'm still learning is that it's really, really important to take care of yourself. This type of work is so important, and most people that work in these areas care really deeply. It's really easy to burn yourself out taking on too much work, or overlook the emotional toll. There are times to pour yourself into your work, but you always need to come back and take care of yourself, too.

What book would you recommend from the Freedom Store? 

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

What is your favorite part of the museum?

My favorite part of the museum is Freedom's Eternal Flame on our third floor terrace. It calls back to the candles Underground Railroad conductors placed in windows to mark safe houses. It will also burn until all people are free around the world. It's a beautiful moment that symbolizes hope for a better world and the work still left to do.

Freedom Center Spotlight: Amy Bottomley

Freedom Center Voices

Dr. Amy Bottomley

She/ Her

Director of Educational Initiatives, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Fast Facts


Ottawa, Ohio — a small town in Northwestern Ohio.


Traveling with my family (husband and 2 kids), reading, and listening to audiobooks or podcasts — things that let me escape for a bit and experience something different.

Fun Fact

I have 3 dogs, Bella, Bailey, and Bibi. I’m that person who can’t pass a dog without pointing and saying “Aww. Look at that fur baby! Such a good dog!”

I’ll cross the street to meet a dog. I’ve been tempted to stop my car to meet a dog.

Freedom Center Spotlight
Dr. Amy Bottomley joined the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2021 as the Director of Educational Initiatives.

What does your job entail?

The Director of Educational Initiatives oversees all content and programming related to K-12 education and educator professional development.

What upcoming projects are you excited about?

I’m very excited about the refresh and emphasizing social justice movements throughout U.S. history. As a history teacher, it’s my mission to answer the question: Why do we need to learn about this? My answer is always: We learn about the past, so we understand our present and create a better future. We all have a responsibility to the future. No one lives in isolation. Our actions impact other people in meaningful ways. The history of social justice in the U.S. exemplifies this.

Throughout our history, meaningful change required people to first recognize social injustice and then work together to improve opportunities for everyone. I don’t think enough people understand this concept or the importance it played in our history. The opportunity to educate students and the public about it is very exciting.

What books would you recommend from the Freedom Store?

"Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist" written by Philip Dray and illustrated by Stephen Alcorn.

First of all, picture books are wonderful resources for readers of all ages. Well written and illustrated picture books like this one present accurate information in a short amount of space in a compelling format. Second of all, everyone should know about Ida B. Wells. She was a force of nature, and her story includes essential but often overlooked elements of the American story. She was born into slavery and experienced emancipation as a young girl, being among the first generations to navigate a new society. And she did this as a young, professional Black woman in the South. Her story illustrates the significance of race, gender, education, and activism under the cloud of Jim Crow. This book captures the courage and perseverance of Ida as she navigated her impressive life.

Teaching suggestion: Check out the C3 Inquiry The Urgency of Your Pen: Literacy Laws

"Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Salve to Artist" written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

The story of Harriet Powers is one of quiet strength and the power of art. Harriet navigated slavery, emancipation, and raising a family in Georgia during Reconstruction. That alone was a monumental feat, but one shared by thousands like her at the time. Considered insignificant by many, those stories of quiet strength and resilience have largely been lost or overlooked. However, Harriet’s quilts live on to share those stories: they’ve made the insignificant significant.

Teaching suggestion: Check out the C3 Inquiry Really Free

Teaching suggestions: Compare the stories of Ida B. Wells and Harriet Power. How are they alike and different? How did society at the time shape their lives? How did their decisions shape their lives? How did each of them contribute to social justice?

What has been your most impactful or favorite part of working at the Freedom Center?

I go to work every day to facilitate lightbulb moments for people willing to learn. The most exciting part of being an educator is the light bulb moment: when a person makes a connection, something clicks into place, and they suddenly have an understanding they didn’t have a minute ago.

Now they are looking at the world differently and say – I never thought about it that way before, or I never thought to ask that question. It’s like they put on x-ray glasses, and they see the world differently – from a different perspective. Things that were always there but invisible to them are now visible and can’t be unseen.

What's the best piece of advice you can give to someone starting this type of work? 

Begin with your own self-reflection and work on your own perspectives and biases before expecting others to change. Be honest with yourself, recognize areas that need improvement, and hold yourself accountable to changing. And make self-reflection an ongoing occurrence. It’s not a one-time process.

What is your secret talent or superpower? What are you really good at?

I have a reserve of energy just for teaching about history and social justice. I could be exhausted and on the verge of sleeping, but if the tiniest opportunity for a teachable moment presents itself – I tap into that reserve and go into super teacher mode. I’ll ask really thought proving questions to unsuspecting people. I can’t help it.

My husband and kids experience this quite often. Once a birthday dinner at a restaurant turned into a conversation with my elementary aged kids about events that led to the Cold War. True story.

How should we teach tough history?

All learning occurs by making connections to our own experiences, or to things we already understand. Those connections are going to be different depending on the person and the experiences and understandings they possess. So, anyone trying to instill learning needs to come at it from all angles: make connections between the past and present, tell the human stories involved so historical figures become relatable, offer multiple perspectives on the same topic, fact-check, ask challenging questions and encourage people to challenge their pre-existing ideas. Have a conversation or at least begin one. Learning and meaningful understanding results from interaction, not isolation.

For example: You might read a book and gain knowledge of facts. You might event make connections to your own experiences or prior knowledge while reading and gain some understanding. But when you talk to people about the book and share understandings you gain new perspectives and could be challenged to change your thinking. Communicating takes the learning to another level.

What section in the museum do you find interesting?

I gravitate towards the section about the founding documents in the Slavery to Freedom exhibit. That section challenges visitors to consider the role slavery played in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution: the very essence of our country.  Evidence is displayed so people consider essential elements of U.S. history that are infrequently taught. This evidence challenges the standard story we tell about our founding. To understand systemic and institutional racism in the U.S., start with the contradictions about slavery in the Declaration of Independence and consider why Jefferson’s section blaming the slave trade on the King of England was removed. Then, move on to the Constitution and the Three -fifths Compromise. Read the justifications for permitting slavery to continue. Within the context of the museum, you must deal with the humanity involved in those decisions.



Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

Black Resistance
May 12, 2023

Black Resistance: The Power of the Image

"I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America — poverty, racism, discrimination."
– Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Through the lens of the camera, communities have been able to document their experience, preserve their history and challenge misconceptions since the evolution of photography. As this technology became publicly available, many people were able to sit for a photograph or even become a photographer themselves. Black photographers were not only dealing with the emergence of a new industry but also with the racial discrimination. Nevertheless, a few prominent African Americans were able to make names for themselves as respected photographers.

Frederick Douglass was already a respected orator and established author by the time these new photographic methods were becoming popular. While it was a new technology, he recognized the importance of how photography could be a catalyst for social change. Douglass believed “Negros can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists” because he knew the importance of having Black photographers in the field – especially when photographing Black subjects.

When Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth sat for photographs, they did so in hopes that white people would see that Black people weren’t the caricatures they were portrayed to be. Posing for a photograph became an act of empowerment for Black people and served to counteract the stereotypes that distorted facial features and mocked Black society and culture. The development of Black photography allowed communities greater control to style images that authentically represented Black life during that time.

James Presley “J.P.” Ball

J.P. Ball was an African American photographer, abolitionist and businessman in the mid-1800s. He established a photographic business in Cincinnati in 1849 which became one of the most popular portrait studios in mid-nineteenth century America.

J.P. Ball was born free in Virginia in 1825. As a young man, Ball learned the process of daguerreotypes from the Black Boston photographer John B. Bailey. His first attempt at opening a photographic studio in Cincinnati in 1845 failed and Ball spent the next four years traveling through Pittsburgh, Richmond and Ohio working as an itinerant photographer before resettling in Cincinnati in 1849.

Cincinnati was home to rising racial tensions in the 19th century. It had just seen the race riots of 1829, 1836 and 1841 where African Americans were being run out of Cincinnati, attacked, killed or had their homes destroyed. As a prominent abolitionist and Black business owner, J.P. Ball had to carefully navigate a city filled with racial tensions. Nevertheless, he was dedicated and, in 1853, Ball moved his gallery to a downtown Cincinnati location and “Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West” became one of the most celebrated galleries in the United States.

Ball traveled to Europe in 1856 where he photographed Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. His growing reputation drew many well-known figures to his Cincinnati studio, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, P.T. Barnum and the family of Ulysses S. Grant.  By 1857, Ball and his brother-in-law had opened a business that became known as “the finest photographic gallery west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

His work serves as documentation that despite the common imagery presented from this time period, these real photographs of Black people exist, too.


In the rise of the Jim Crow era, photography was still being used to give a voice to the often-misrepresented communities. There was also an increase in photos taken to disparage the Black community and support white supremacy. Images of dehumanized bodies and lynchings were not uncommon and were used to demoralize those trying to advance their rights.

Many photographers emerged to document the beauty and resilience of their communities despite the struggles they faced with Gordon Parks, P.H. Polk and James Van Der Zee among the most notable photographers giving voice to their communities at this time. With their documentation of the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement and portraits that dignified their subjects we can get a fuller representation of Black life during this time.


Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 | Gordon Parks


Gordon Parks

Some of Gordon Parks' most famous photos are of regular life portraying family and friends gathering, going shopping, attending church and getting ice cream with kids – things that most people can relate to on some level. But he was also showing what life was like for African Americans. Using his camera, he was creating a social commentary about the basis of our humanity.

These images provide evidence that these people existed—they are noteworthy because they aren’t of noteworthy images. They are empowering because they counteracted the distorted images portrayed by the media.

Gordon Parks' photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader” in 1948 documented the life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson in hopes of humanizing the individuals in the Harlem Gang Wars and encouraging support for social programs. This landed him a job with Life Magazine where he was hired as the first Black photographer on staff. His photographs of the civil rights movement became some of the most important documentation of racial divide in the United States.

His work took him around the world and had him photographing icons of the time including Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. His extensive collection of work from the 1940s to the 2000s include credits as photographer, author, composer and filmmaker. His film “The Learning Tree” was the first studio film by an African American director. Set in rural Kansas in the 1920s, the film was a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Later, his iconic film “Shaft” (1971) featured a Black detective working against white criminals. He was brought in to direct the film and, apart from the script, gave all the pieces of the filmmaking process — from acting to marketing — to African American creatives.

The rise in digital photography and social media has increased the power of photography for pushing social change and creating a global collaborative community. Social media platforms have allowed its users to connect and share their experiences with a wide audience. It has allowed people to tell their own stories with their own voice. The #BlackLivesMatter movement gained traction in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin and as users began sharing powerful images online.

The role of photography cannot be understated when pushing for social change. It has long been an important tool for creating awareness by provoking an emotional response. Photographs capture the injustices and inequalities of society, and by presenting these images to a wider audience, they can (and have) inspired change.

Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Freedom Center Voices

April 14, 2023

Black Resistance: Reproductive Justice

Content advisory: The following post includes references to historic events and policies that may be emotionally challenging, including instances of sexual assault.

Women have been fighting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies for longer than the nation has been a union. The battle has been even harder for Black women and other women of color. Black women have historically been subjected to great reproductive injustices that have had lasting effects.

Starting during chattel slavery, enslaved women had little to no control of their reproductive systems. Female enslaved people were bought for their bodies: for sex or for ability to produce more bodies. Women were advertised and sold for the purpose of creating more labor, comparable to cattle or livestock.

Did you know?

 J. Marion Sims, credited as the “Father of Gynecology” carried out his experimental operations on enslaved women – often without an anesthetic. Between 1845 and 1849, he performed repeated operations on these Black women that he quartered in a small hospital behind his house in Alabama. His misuse and unethical treatment of these non-consenting women have led many in the scientific community to denounce Sims for his work.


"Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot—shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866 [Sketched by A.R.W.]" | Alfred Rudolph Waud; Harper's Weekly, 26 May 1866, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonial laws prohibited interracial marriages but not fornication, which gave white enslavers incentive to sexually exploit, abuse and control their enslaved property. It was seen as a wealth maximizing strategy that completely disregarded the mother for the sole purpose of creating labor and wealth for the enslaver. There are stories of enslaved women giving themselves abortions or killing their infants so their child wouldn’t be born into the exploitative practice of slavery or to prevent their daughters from sharing their fate. 

It is believed that the first women in the United States to publicly break the silence around rape and sexual violence were the African American and Black women who testified before Congress after the Memphis Riot of May 1866. In the three-day race riot, 48 people were killed, over 100 Black homes, churches and schools were burned down and five Black women reported being raped.  

Six formerly enslaved women who had relocated to Memphis testified to Congress about the riots. They are often cited as the first victims of sexual assault to testify in public. Their horrifying testimonies and that of the other atrocities led to the eventual passage of the 14th Amendment. Their names were Lucy Tibbs, Harriet Armour, Lucy Smith, Frances Thompson, Elivra Walker and Rebecca Ann Bloom 

Frances Thompson was later arrested after it was discovered she was a transgender woman. 

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
– 14th Amendment, Section 1

Fannie Lou Hamer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When owners could no longer profit off the “use” of Black women’s bodies after emancipation, a different view on Black pregnancy began to form. White society and pro-slavery individuals shifted from forcing reproduction on Black women to trying to stop it at all.  

In the late 19th century, the eugenics movement in America began to take shape. Lying medical professionals would perform sterilization procedures on unknowing or unwitting Black females resulting in them unable to reproduce. The laws that permitted hospitals and doctors to perform these procedures had broad and ever-changing labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.” These forced sterilization campaigns combined disability with racism and xenophobia and worked on dehumanizing, typically, targeted minority groups. These groups were deemed less worthy of reproduction and of family formation. Eugenicists applied new theories in biology and genetics to human reproduction but this gave a very subjective opinion on who was “fit” and “unfit.” Anyone who didn’t fit their mold of genetic perfection, which included most immigrants, Black and African American people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and poor whites, were deemed “unfit.”  Some doctors told patients they needed a particular operation and some doctors performed sterilizations during other types of operations, without the patient’s knowledge or consent.  

Famed Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery for removal of a fibroid and, in addition, was given a hysterectomy. She found that almost 60% of Black women in her community had undergone similar surgeries. It was so common she coined the term “Mississippi Appendectomy.” Among other things, Hamer went on to protest for bodily autonomy and is quoted as saying a “Black woman’s body was never hers alone.” 

The term “reproductive justice” was created by a group of 12 Black women in 1994. They defined it as a “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent their children in safe and sustainable communities.” This provided the framework that sparked social movements across the country. 

Toni M. Bond Leonard, Reverend Alma Crawford, Evelyn S. Field, Terri James, Bisola Marignay, Cassandra McConnell, Cynthia Newbille, Lorretta Ross, Elizabeth Terry, ‘Able’ Mable Thomas, Winnette P. Willis and Kim Youngblood were the 12 women. Later they would become the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice (WADRJ). They came together to plan a response to President Clinton’s healthcare reform effort, feeling the reforms did not address critical issues. 

The reproductive justice framework recognizes that reproductive health is impacted by social, economic and political factors, and that reproductive rights are human rights. It emphasizes the importance of centering the experiences of marginalized communities, including people of color, low-income individuals and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

The recent reproductive justice movement has focused on several key issues, including access to comprehensive sexual education, birth control, abortion and maternal healthcare. Black women have played a leading role in advocating for these issues, using their voices and experiences to call attention to the systemic barriers that limit their reproductive freedom. 

From The Curator’s Desk – Tintype Conservation

Freedom Center Voices
January 20, 2023

From the Curator’s Desk – Tintype Conservation

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center currently has three tintypes and one carte-de-visite (CDV) from its museum collection on display in the FotoFocus Biennial special exhibition ‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory co-curated by Deborah Willis, Ph.D. and Cheryl Finley, Ph.D.  

‘Free as they want to be’: Artists Committed to Memory is open September 30, 2022 through March 5, 2023. Learn more→

As I reviewed images of the other pieces that would be included in this exhibition, I looked at the Freedom Center’s collection of historical photographs and selected four that depict images of Black women reclining, embracing, and posing in a photography studio.  These photographs from the 1890s are empowering, beautiful, and fragile.  There is a lot of literature on the history of photography and its impact, but CDV’s in particular were more affordable and more accessible. More people could participate in the experience of being photographed or sitting for a photograph but what I like about the pieces we have displayed in the Fotofocus “Free as they Want to Be” exhibition is they fit the theme.

These 19th century images capture the social life, beauty, and style of Black women during this period, and the co-curators agreed.  Each woman is dressed up, their hair is styled, they’re being photographed in a studio and looking at the camera. Grandma Ball is in a very distinguished, and regal pose, in a decorative chair. I think seeing more images like this is really empowering because it takes the focus off some of the stereotypical images you might find.  These photos do exist; Black women were being photographed too.

What is a Carte-de-Visite?

A Carte-de-Visite, similar to a calling card, is a closely trimmed portrait photograph presented when visiting that bears the name and sometimes address of the visitor.

Why are early photographs so fragile? 

Tintypes are especially vulnerable to deterioration as light and air exposure impacts the metal.  These tintypes are also dented and scratched on the surface and the corners are clipped.  This most likely occurred when they were removed from their original, decorative case or photo album.  Adhesive residue was also on the backs of the photographs.

Months before the opening of the show, I contacted an art conservator to assess the condition of these tintypes before they could be displayed.  The assessment revealed that the solution the photographer applied to the surface of the photo was chipping around the corners and needed to be treated to prevent further delamination, chipping, and eventual loss of the image.

About the Process of Tintypes

The collodion process is an early photographic process which requires the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed, and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes.

Collodion is a sticky, transparent substance that when soaked in a solution of silver nitrate, is ideal for coating stable surfaces such as glass or metal. That plate is then exposed and developed.

Tintypes were the cheaper variations of the ambrotype. Instead of being printed on glass, the collodion emulsion was coated on thin iron sheets. However, this process did not produce a negative so you could not make copies of the image. Tintypes were particularly popular with Civil War soldiers, immigrants, and working people because they were durable, easy to make, and inexpensive compared to other photographic equipment at the time.

How are tintypes protected? 

At the height of tintypes, they were more durable than any other photographic process so they could be sent through the mail, carried in pockets, or mounted in albums. Decorative cases, paper sleeves, and photo albums not only provided a beautiful aesthetic for the tintype photograph, but they also protected them from dirt, moisture, air, and fingerprints.

As museum artifacts, early photographs must be housed using archival materials and kept in secure, climate-controlled storage.

When viewed closely, the texture of the impairment is evident.

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

Tintype of three unidentified African American women, circa 1890.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.
Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

For the tintype of the reclining woman, there is a black blemish in the center right of the image.  After a discussion with the art conservator, we determined it was best to leave the blemish.  Removal of the blemish would cause more damage to the image (including loss of details in the area around the blemish).

Tintype of three unidentified Black women, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

Reclining African American Woman, circa 1890.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.
Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Reclining African American Woman, circa 1890.  National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.  Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation

The carte-de-visite (CDV) was also treated.  In this case, the masking tape along the back of the CDV was removed to reveal the label with an ornate border which reads:

J.P. Ball’s
Photographic Institute,
30 W. Fourth St.
Cincinnati, OHIO.

Removal of masking tape from back of Grandma Ball CDV.  J.P. Ball’s Photographic Institute. Grandma Ball, circa 1870. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections. Image courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Grandma Ball, circa 1870. J.P. Ball's Photographic Institute. Carte-de-visite.

Images courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

Removal of masking tape from back of Grandma Ball CDV.  J.P. Ball’s Photographic Institute. Grandma Ball, circa 1870. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections. Image courtesy of Strange Stock Art Conservation.

James Presley "J.P." Ball, Sr. was a prominent African American photographer, abolitionist, and businessman who opened a studio in 1849 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work included subjects like P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.

Learn more about J.P. Ball

Further research is needed to identify the Black women in the tintype photos.  Unfortunately, when the tintypes were removed from their decorative cases any names that may have been written on the cases were lost. With names or identifiable information, more research can be done to reveal the women’s lives.

Furthermore, while we could make an educated guess on which photographic studio produced the tintypes, no photographer is credited, named, or identified on the tintypes.  But, thanks to conservation treatment–scholars, students, and others have more opportunities for this research.

Stephanie M. Lampkin, Ph.D. is the Curator at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. She earned her PhD in History and museum studies certificate from the University of Delaware.  Dr. Lampkin’s research explores the intersection between freedom seekers and indigenous populations in the early South and the southern routes to freedom.