Daguerreotypist, politician, educator
Augustus Washington was born September 21, 1820 in Trenton, New Jersey to a former slave and an Asian mother. Washington's mother died when he was very young. He was raised by his stepmother who was also a former slave. Washington received a solid elementary education, but lack of money stymied his attempts at further education for much of his life. In 1836, when Washington was only sixteen, he organized and taught at a school for African American children in Trenton. Washington eventually received money to continue his education through abolitionist friends. He attended the Oneida Institute and Kimball Union Academy before beginning his studies at Dartmouth in 1843. Washington was one of the earliest African Americans accepted at Dartmouth.
In order to help finance his education, Washington learned how to take daguerreotypes. Since he was only able to attend Dartmouth for a year due to lack of money, photography eventually became his forte. Upon leaving Dartmouth in 1844, Washington traveled to Hartford, Connecticut where he taught at the North African School on Talcott Street. It was one of only two black schools in Dartmouth at that time. Washington continued to supplement his income by taking daguerreotypes. In 1846 Washington left education and opened one of the first daguerreotype studios in Hartford. By 1850, it was considered one of the best daguerreotype studios in Hartford. His success was due to his skill taking daguerreotypes and the service he provided for his clients. Everyone received the same high level of service regardless of whether they were rich or poor or black or white. Washington stamped his name and address on his work and their cases, thus assuring his work would always be rec-ognized. If people came in to his studio in unsuitable clothing, he provided suitable garments or draperies to ensure that each person took the best possible picture. He also provided a dressing room for his female patrons. In addition to the daguerreotypes he offered a large selection of cases, frames, bracelets, lockets, and rings in which to put them. Many of Washington's portraits reflected his sentiments about slavery. Washington was so successful that by 1851 he was the only daguerreotypist still in business in Hartford. Washington worked as a daguerreotypist for much of his life. The last known reference to Washington working in the field was in 1858.
Washington was very concerned about the future of blacks in the United States. Initially, he was against the colonization of Liberia by the American Colonization Society. Washington felt that as Americans they should be able to live in peace and freedom in the United States. However, as the slavery controversy heated up, new laws were enacted, and old ones revamped, his concerns grew. In 1850 the Compromise of 1850 passed. It revised the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, and allowed any slave owner to walk up to a black man, woman, or child, and claim them as a runaway slave and send them to the South. Whether a free person or a runaway, blacks had no legal right to plead their cases.
Before the annexation of Mexico by Texas, Washington along with several friends had been trying to purchase land in Mexico. Washington had hoped to live there in freedom and peace as a separate state of the United States. In 1851, fueled by his concerns for the safety and well-being of his family and all blacks, Washington wrote a controversial letter to the New York Tribune in which he discussed the prospects of blacks in the United States.
Washington was concerned that Africa may not be the best place for blacks to live. He had hoped to emigrate to Canada, the West Indies, British Guinea, the part of Mexico which had been annexed by Texas, or even to South America. However given the passing of the Compromise of 1850, he felt that blacks should settle Africa. Washington argued that black leaders in the United States had not done enough to secure opportunities or rights for blacks. He went on to state that white Americans would never believe in the rights of blacks to be free, and whites would never want blacks to have equal rights and opportunities. In fact, the constitutions of the existing states and of those attempting to enter the Union strengthened the rights of whites at the expense of blacks. Washington pointed out the irony that the United States was originally colonized by people who hoped to escape persecution and to be free and yet these people went on to enslave Africans.
Washington also faulted those black ancestors who had not fought harder to escape being pressed into slavery. Washington pointed a finger at abolitionists and those in favor of colonization because they wasted so much time and effort belittling and undermining each other instead of working together. Washington mentioned that as long as blacks were not allowed to pursue political office and to train for any but the most menial jobs, so long as they were denied an education, they would have little chance of advancing in American society. Finally, Washington stated his belief that if whites encouraged the education of blacks, they would leave the United States and do much to improve life for Africans as well as for those who emigrated from this country to Africa. Washington's letter pointed out the responsibility shared by everyone for the tragedy that was slavery.
Emigration to Liberia
In November 1853, Washington moved with his family to Liberia. Washington knew that life in Liberia would not be easy. Many blacks died from disease. The natives of Liberia and the colonists often did not get along. Nevertheless, Washington eventually prospered and became one of Liberia's leading citizens.
- Born in Trenton, New Jersey on September 21
- Organizes a school for black children in Trenton, New Jersey
- Attends Dartmouth College
- Teaches school in Hartford, Connecticut
- Opens daguerreotype studio in Hartford, Connecticut
- Writes letter to New York Tribune about the prospects of blacks in the United States
- Moves with family to Liberia
- Begins teaching Greek and Latin at Alexander High School
- Becomes Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives
- Elected to the Liberian Senate
- Founds the newspaper New Era
- Dies in Monrovia, Liberia on June 7
Upon his arrival in Liberia, Washington worked as a school teacher at Alexander High School in Monrovia where he taught Greek and Latin. In addition, Washington fulfilled his obligation to the American Colonization Society to photograph the colonization of Liberia by black emigrants. As quoted by Carol Johnson, in 1854 Washington wrote of his happiness in Liberia: "I love Africa because I can see no other spot on earth where we can enjoy so much freedom … I believe that I shall do a thousand times more good for Africa, and add to our force of intelligent men." Washington eventually left teaching, bought several hundred acres, and spent half the year growing sugar cane and the other half making daguerreotypes. The daguerreotype business was so successful that he eventually expanded his business into Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Senegal. By 1855, Washing-ton had built and was renting out two houses in Monrovia. He became increasingly prominent in Liberia. By the end of the 1850s Washington had been appointed as a judge. In 1865, he became speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives. In 1871, Washington was elected to the Liberian Senate. Finally in 1873, Washington founded and became editor of the newspaper New Era. Washington died in Monrovia, Liberia on June 7, 1875. His death was mourned as signifying a great loss to western Africa.
Moses, Wilson J. Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
Shumard, Ann M. A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington African American Daguerreotypist. Washington, D.C.: The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.
Johnson, Carol. "Faces of Freedom: Portraits from the American Colonization Society Collection." Daguerreian Annual Collection (1996): 264-78.
Connecticut Historical Society. Augustus Washington: Hartford's Black Daguerreotypist, 1999–2002. http://www.chs.org/graphcoll/augwash.htm (Accessed 9 February 2005).
Washington, Augustus. African Colonization—By a Man of Color, July 3, 1851. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=621. (Accessed 21 December 2005).
Anne K. Driscoll