Through the Lens: Black Women’s Liberation in Photos

In the fight for civil rights and equality, the role of photography has been indispensable. However, the stories of Black women and their unique struggles have often been overlooked. Within the context of the Black women’s liberation movement, it has played an essential role in preserving the stories of resilience, resistance, and triumph. For Black women, who have long been at the intersection of racial, gender, and sex-based discrimination, photography serves as a visual chronicle of their resilience. 

Slavery: 1619 – 1865

Harriet Tubman in midlife, Powelson, Benjamin F., Auburn, New York.

Black women, men, and children endured ongoing subjugation and violence as they were enslaved and subjected to the harshest forms of discrimination. Their strength and resilience were captured through haunting images, serving as a testament to the human spirit even in the darkest of times.

These early photographs, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, are valuable historical records, providing a glimpse into the lives and faces of people who endured slavery and its aftermath.

While photographs of enslaved individuals were not common during the period of slavery itself, the medium of photography became an important tool for documenting and advocating for social change in the years that followed.

Slave pen, Alexandria, Virginia.

Though often commissioned by white slaveowners, photographs of enslaved Black women and their families serve as a testament to their humanity and resilience in spite of adversity. These images help us understand the historical roots of the Black women’s liberation movement, highlighting the need for justice and equality and further anchors them to the ongoing quest for freedom.

Reconstruction: 1865 – 1877

After the abolition of slavery, Black women emerged seeking freedom and a life of dignity. During the Reconstruction era, they began to rebuild their lives, families, and communities. The lens of photography started to capture both their determination and the challenges they faced as they navigated life during post-abolition and the onset of Jim Crow in the New South.

Lavinia Russell Baker of Lake City, South Carolina and her five surviving children after the lynching of her husband, Postmaster Frazer and their daughter, Julia, on February 22, 1898. The Post Office and Baker family home was burned and family members were attacked by gunfire as they sought to escape., J.E. Purdy & Co., 1899.
Woman working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber, Feb. 1943.

Black Women on the Frontlines

As World War II swept the globe, Black women and their families left the oppressive conditions of the Jim Crow South to seek new opportunities in urban areas in what is known as the Great Migration. These urban centers offered a chance for Black women to earn a living wage and escape the discrimination they faced, particularly in the South. Many of these women, often referred to as “Black Rosies,” assumed crucial roles on the frontlines of the American war effort. They took on roles as welders, shipbuilders, electricians, and more, making substantial contributions to the nation’s wartime labor force.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established during the Great Depression with the aim of aiding rural and impoverished communities and creating a visual historical record of American life. While the agency documented the challenges and contributions of Black Americans, it’s essential to acknowledge that the images from this era were predominantly captured from a white perspective, often reflecting the viewpoints of the photographers and not fully encompassing the nuanced experiences of Black women and their communities.

Their migration and work experiences not only marked a significant demographic shift but also underscored their determination and resilience in the face of racial and gender discrimination. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for broader movements advocating for civil rights and gender equality in the years to come.

Civil Rights Movement: 1950’s – 1960’s

Photography’s role extended to fostering solidarity among Black women activists as they confronted the deeply ingrained racism that marginalized them, whether in the northern states or within the confines of the Jim Crow South. During the Civil Rights era, Black women played pivotal roles as activists and leaders. Their stories were documented through powerful images that captured their determination and resilience. From leading marches to demanding equal rights, their contributions were essential to all progress made. Group portraits and candid photographs became visual testaments to their unity and unwavering strength. These images transcended the role of mere documentation, serving as a powerful source of inspiration and solidarity, reinforcing the idea that they were not isolated in their shared struggle. The photographs not only captured moments but also amplified the collective spirit and resilience that defined their fight for justice, highlighting the extraordinary power of imagery in connecting and mobilizing communities.

Woman seated on ground, fishing, at the Tidal Basin, a segregated beach in Washington, D.C., Toni Frissell, June 25, 1957.

The Lens as a Weapon

Photography has been a crucial tool for extending the reach of social justice movements, capturing pivotal figures who define eras. Angela Davis, an influential figure in the 1970s Black Liberation Movement, illustrates the transformative power of photography. Branded a fugitive by the FBI, her wanted poster and her image evolved into an enduring emblem of the Black freedom struggle. These photographs transcend mere documentation; they serve as potent visual rhetoric, conveying Davis’s unwavering commitment to social justice. Angela Davis’ image continue to inspire, reminding us of photography’s dynamic role in shaping and preserving the legacy of social justice movements.

Civil rights march on Washington, with Black women leading the procession carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias., Leffler, Warren K., Aug. 28, 1963.
Juanita Sealy, being carried to police patrol wagon during a demonstration in Brooklyn, New York, 1963.

One iconic figure who harnessed the power of photography in the Black women’s liberation movement was Shirley Chisholm. In 1968, she became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm used photography strategically to cultivate her image as a strong, unapologetic leader. Her campaign photographs captured her unwavering determination and inspired countless Black women to engage in politics.

While prominent figures like Chisholm are often the face of movements, photography also allows for the documentation of everyday heroes. Black women in local communities who dedicated their lives to advocating for change were captured through the lenses of photographers. These unsung heroes and their stories are a testament to the depth and breadth of the movement.

Dr. Angela Y. Davis, c. 1970.
Shirley Chisholm presidential campaign poster, 1972.

The Present: Beyond the Struggle

Black Lives Matter march, July, 2020.

The fight for Black women’s liberation continues today, and photography remains an essential tool in this ongoing struggle. In the age of social media, Black women use platforms like Instagram and Twitter to share their stories, raise awareness, and mobilize for change. Hashtags like #SayHerName and #BlackTransLivesMatter have amplified the voices and experiences of Black women who are often marginalized within marginalized communities. The challenges they face remain complex, but their unwavering determination is as strong as ever.

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Isis Jannierre
Isis Jannierre
New York City-based fine arts photographer, Parsons School of Design alumna - capturing and highlighting environmental, social, and cultural issues through an objective lens.
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