, Newburyport, MA


March 23, 2013

Shribman: Where portraits tell the story


Now, a final word about a final portrait, this one a remarkable hand-painted lithograph of Martin Delany, the black activist, doctor and editor who was an associate of Frederick Douglass.

Much about this portrait is wrong -- it shows him standing in front of Union tents, presumably as the battle commander of black troops. But there remains something strong and true about this image. Delany persuaded Lincoln to allow black officers to command black troops, and he was chosen to lead the 104th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in Charleston, S.C. But the war ended too soon for Delany or his troops to see action, though the point remains: Delany was a pioneer and visionary, two traits that ensure his memory today.

“He was one of the most militant activists for African-American self-determination and civil rights during the antebellum period,” says Ann M. Shumard, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “He had gone to great lengths to catalog the professionals of color who were men of accomplishment.”

A century and a half later, the Civil War and the debate on slavery that prompted it still inspire great moments in the arts. Late last month, a group of arts organizations and universities announced it would develop a dozen new theatrical works about the war. Washington, D.C., already is full of visual exhibits about the conflict, including one on the art of the era at the Smithsonian American Art Museum adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery.

But before you wander there, linger for a moment before one final masterpiece at the portrait gallery, an 1864 chromolithograph of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia. This breathtaking print portrays black soldiers and their white commanding officer at Camp William Penn, and its title is “Come and Join Us Brothers.”

The lesson of the Civil War is that the conflict itself joined us as brothers, and nowhere is that clearer than in these pictures at an exhibition.


North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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