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“A Typical Negro”: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Colyer, and the story behind slavery's most famous photograph

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    Rights statement: © Silkenat, D. (2014). “A Typical Negro”: Gordon, Peter, Vincent Colyer, and the Story Behind Slavery's Most Famous Photograph. American nineteenth century history, 15(2), 169-186. 10.1080/14664658.2014.939807

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-186
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Nineteenth Century History
Issue number2
Early online date8 Aug 2014
StatePublished - 2014


The image of the “scourged back” remains one of the most visually arresting depictions of slavery. Based on a photograph taken in Baton Rouge in April 1863 and later published in Harper's Weekly, it has become one of the most widely reprinted and recognizable images of American slavery. However, despite the image's ubiquity, we know relatively little about the image and the man featured in it. Most historians who have examined the image accept the narrative in the accompanying Harper's article as an accurate account of the subject's life and the image's origins. This article argues, however, that there is good evidence to suggest that the accompanying article was largely fabricated and much of what we think we know about “Gordon” may be inaccurate.

    Research areas

  • Civil War, photography, Vincent Colyer, slaves

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