WASHINGTON -- Ann Shumard knocks you over with her enthusiasm. There's always one more tidbit to add, another slip of information to get hold of and catalog.
"Maybe I'm obsessive, but I made files for each letter, each item," she says.
She has more than 250 files, all dedicated to a free black man, a polymath of the 19th century. He was a journalist, politician, farmer and photographer. He left no image of himself, only the record of his life.
Augustus Washington wasn't the only black daguerreotypist of his time. What set him apart is the body of identifiable work he made in America and Liberia. Had John Brown, the messianic abolitionist, not walked into his Hartford, Conn., daguerreotype shop in 1847, Washington might have disappeared into history. Instead, he is the subject of "A Durable Memento," now on display at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
"I'm so glad this show is not up in African-American History Month. I would rather not have it put in that pigeonhole," says Shumard, the exhibit's curator. "I know I'm going to sound like a preacher, but this is not just African-American history, this is American history."
Shumard spent more than a year tracking down this history. She traveled to New Jersey and Connecticut, read microfilm until her eyes gave out, called researchers and pored over census records and city directories. In the end she had a story Washington's descendants did not know.
"Except that he was my great-grandfather, I didn't know much about him," says Armena Cooper-Hines, who lives in Germantown. "In Liberia he had been a senator, but in Liberia we don't keep too many records of what people did in history."
Washington probably wouldn't make it into anyone's book of Great Men. He didn't lead revolutions or write books. Yet he made himself a success when barriers were everywhere he turned. He believed in the 19th-century American concept of "an aristocracy of achievement, rather than an aristocracy of family," says Shumard.
Born to free parents in 1820 or 1821, he was the son of Christian Washington, who owned an oyster saloon near the state Capitol in Trenton, N.J. He grew up at ease with whites, went to their private schools. He fed his hungry mind with abolitionist newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator and Benjamin Lundy's Genius of Universal Emancipation.
By the 1830s, America's racial anxieties flared up and closed doors once open to him. Schools that accepted him as a child turned him away. Undeterred, he taught himself.
"He talks in his early life about his desire to be a scholar and a useful man," says Shumard.
By the time he was 15 or 16, he led a small school for blacks in Trenton. Friends in abolitionist circles helped him get into the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, N.Y., where he stayed until debts forced him out. His next stop was Brooklyn. He ran the African Public School, wrote for the weekly Colored American and tried to get unrestricted voting rights for New York's black citizens.
Barely out of his teens, he had already become a useful man. But he was not satisfied. He wanted more knowledge. The American Education Society refused to help him get into Dartmouth College. So, he went to his abolitionist friends. They helped him attend Kimball Union Academy and, in the fall of 1843, Dartmouth.
A new beginning
He lasted one semester. Again, he ran out of money. This time no one, not even his parents, could help. Over the winter break, he bought a daguerreotype camera and started taking pictures. He didn't know then, but the camera would forever change his life.
Daguerreotypes were perhaps the amazing invention of their time. Invented by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s, they brought photography into the world. Itinerant daguerreotypists lugged their cameras across the country and painted pictures with the light. The photos were made by exposing a copper plate covered with a light-sensitive silver halide for several seconds, then washing the plate with mercury.
No longer did people need a top-notch, high-priced portrait artist. You could buy a daguerreotype for 50 cents. Washington cashed in on the craze. Still, he ended his freshman year $120 in debt.
He picked up a teaching job in Hartford, leaving behind his equipment and a library of 150 books. He wanted to return to Dartmouth, believed he would return. Two years later, he was still in Hartford, now placing newspaper ads touting "A cheap and beautiful Christmas present. A durable memento."
The photographs catch their subjects in stiff, often tight-lipped poses. John Brown's steely eyes hold you in a grim, stern gaze. Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, founder of Aetna Life Insurance, seems to be holding his breath. His son, Charles, who would later die in the Civil War, looks as though he is willing himself to sit still.
Huldah Welles, daughter of Ichabod and Abigail, is shown around her 90th birthday, gazing with a gentle wonder that she would live to see such magic. For Shumard, finding these pictures was only part of her research. She wanted the stories behind the faces.
Sarah Taintor Bulkeley Waterman's tale almost slipped by her. Only 20 when photographed by Washington, Waterman sailed for China with her husband aboard the Highflyer. Shumard spent hours at the Connecticut Historical Society, reading microfilm and searching for the Highflyer's full story. She didn't find what she needed.
"You're always asking, what am I missing?" she says. "Did my attention lapse and I missed something?"
Turns out she had read the wrong year's newspapers. Reports of the Highflyer being shipwrecked didn't reach Hartford for two years. Sarah Waterman, the crew and passengers, including several Chinese prospectors returning from the California gold fields, were presumed dead, murdered by pirates.
Washington's daguerreotypes, each slightly smaller than a 3-by-5 card, are indications of his standing. Prominent businessmen brought their families to him. William Lloyd Garrison, whose paper fired Washington's adolescent imagination, stopped by. His was a successful life, though one circumscribed by the times.
His America offered free blacks a nominal freedom. Its mores and culture corralled their lives. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 meant they could be mistaken for runaway slaves and sold into bondage. Off and on Washington considered emigration to the Caribbean, maybe South America, someplace where he could taste freedom in its purest sense.
For years he rejected the idea of going to Liberia, founded in 1816 by the American Colonization Society. The country based its existence on the belief that blacks and whites could never live together in America. Washington believed in America's promise.
"I abhor with intense hatred the motives, scheme, and the spirit of colonization," he wrote.
In time, however, he saw no other option. He wrote that it was "impossible for us to develop our moral and intellectual capacities as a distinct people, under our present social and political disabilities; and judging from the past and present state of things, there is no reason to hope that we can do it in this country in the future."
Having already lived two lives, he set out to begin another. On Nov. 10, 1853, he and his family sailed for Liberia aboard the Isla de Cuba. A month later, their ship lay at anchor in Monrovia harbor. An unparalleled excitement ran through the passengers. Few slept. Washington never forgot that morning's sunrise, later writing:
"It was a beautiful sight to look for the first time in our life on the sunny hills and verdant plains of the only land in which we can feel ourselves truly free."
He became an immediate success, selling $500 worth of daguerreotypes in the first five weeks. He photographed Stephen Allen Benson, president of Liberia. Sen. John Hanson, who had bought his freedom and sailed from Baltimore in 1827, sat for a portrait.
He taught Latin and Greek at Alexander High School in Monrovia, and became a prosperous farmer and critic of the growing rift between Africans and the American immigrants. Liberia was not Utopia.
At home in Liberia
"We must still say we love Liberia 'with all her faults,' because we have not yet seen or heard of any place on the eastern or western continent that we could like better," he wrote.
He and other American blacks began to see Liberia as a place where "if given free rein, they could accomplish amazing things, and this would force the world to reconsider" its opinion of blacks, says Shumard.
Washington made one return trip to America. His thoughts about the Civil War, Reconstruction or the subsequent struggles of black Americans remain unknown. Liberia was now his home. He served two terms in its House of Representatives, one in the Senate. In 1873, he started publishing and editing the New Era.
Given a true freedom, he succeeded beyond anything he could have achieved in America. The African Repository called his death on June 7, 1875, "a severe loss to Western Africa." His family has looked for photos but found none. Much was lost during Liberia's violent upheavals.
"Had we known that he was that famous maybe somebody in the family would have taken those pictures and put them up," says Cooper-Hines, his great-granddaughter. "But when we had the coup in Liberia, we were running for our lives. That was the least of your worries when you have soldiers shooting at you."
That Washington left no pictures of himself does not bother Shumard, who is continuing her research. She says, "he tells us enough through his accomplishments and his works."
"A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington" will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 2.