It is very difficult to look at these engravings made more than 140 years ago objectively without negatively judging them with the mores and sensibilities of today. At first glance, Outside of the Galleries of the House of Representatives During the Passage of The Civil Rights Bill seemed to be a cliché of the happy go lucky “darkie” dancing because he has natural rhythm. On further examination, it becomes evident that this first impression is wrong.
Assuming, for the purposes of this assignment, these engravings are an honest, genuine attempt to reflect reality, these two images provide considerably food for thought. They become even more interesting in light of the 98 years from the passage of the Civil Rights Act depicted in the engravings until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that successfully brought universal suffrage in the United States. During this time dozens of illegal strategies and tactics were used to prevent blacks from voting: literacy tests, property ownership: poll tax, and both the threat of violence and actual violence among them.
Outside of the Galleries of the House of Representatives During the Passage of The Civil Rights Bill shows both an interracial and interclass celebration. A white businessman, a number of white soldiers, one with a missing leg, presumably a Union Soldier who lost his leg in the recent Civil war, and a white tradesmen seem to join the blacks in celebration of the successful passage of the bill. The ideal of a democratic nation.
The First Vote contains some very interesting elements as well. Particularly poignant is the complete masthead for Harpers Weekly, including “A Journal of Civilization.” This subtitle is particularly appropriate considering the topics of both pictures.
One wonders where this voting is supposed to have taken place. The scene is very orderly, draped across the ceiling is a United States flag. So soon after the Civil War, one can’t imagine a Southern polling site have such a large United States flag?”
In this engraving, a line of all-black voters proudly stand up straight while waiting to vote, overlooked by a white man. The white man who appears to be the official monitoring the voting. He looks a little apprehensive, but does not appear to be angry or hostile. Interestingly, this appears to be a segregated polling site.
Although it’s nice to think that blacks and whites proudly and graciously during the first election that allowed blacks to vote, but history indicates this wasn’t the case. Frankly the failure to do so is understandable. The Civil War had legally destroyed the very foundation of the lifestyle for both the freed slaves and their former masters. Both were in shock, confused and afraid of what the consequences of the massive change would be. This engraving too, provides an ideal: a view of voting during the first integrated election.
In terms of history, these engravings illustrate an imagined world where the voting took place peacefully and was accepted by all. They provide a naïve picture. However in terms of reality and civil rights, perhaps these engravings succeed in reflecting reality by what they don’t show. There are no women depicted in either engraving.
|Outside of the Galleries of the House of Representatives During the Passage of The Civil Rights Bill. 1999. The New York Public Library. May 31, 2006. <http://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19
|The First Vote. 1999. The New York Public Library. May 31, 2006. http://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/images_aa19/