852: Rare – Unidentified African American man

When processing print, photograph, and manuscript collections, archivists encounter many challenges, not the least of which are unidentified photographs and illegible handwriting.

When processors in the Art Collection come across an unidentified photograph, we have to use our knowledge of the creator of the collection to guide us to a best-possible guess on identify. Some additional research might be done quickly, but, more often than not, the volume of materials to be processed requires us to list the photograph as “unidentified” and move on, hoping that a clue will present itself as we continue our work.

Sometimes, however, a photograph comes across the table that we just can’t seem to put aside. The following carte-de-visite photograph is being cataloged and digitized as part of a project to make electronically available all the prints and photographs contained in the visual materials collection of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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Taken by Boston photographer A. Sonrel, the notation on the back of this card is partially legible. His first name—Charles—and the date—July ’63—are clear. But what in the world is his last name? This is not Justice Holmes’s now-familiar scrawl, and for the life of me, I cannot confirm the sitter’s last name. The dress, posture, and sheer existence of this photograph lead me to believe that this man was a free Black living in Boston. Who was this man to Holmes or the Holmes family? I want to know more. In July 1863, Lieutenant Holmes was convalescing at his Boston home after being shot in the heel during a May 3rd battle in Chancelorsville, Virginia.

Can anyone help identify this man? Titling this photograph “Portrait of an unidentified African American man” is so unsatisfying.

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