White Slaves” was one of several pieces on the South printed in Youth’s Companion as the Civil War ended in 1865. Its theme was the “degrading” effects of slavery on Southern culture—explored in several pieces the Companion printed that year. As the piece offered its young readers information on one of the shameful aspects of antebellum Southern society, it offers us a glimpse of attitudes of the time. Editorial assumptions about the audience are evident: the readers were not only Northern (a safe bet at the time this piece was published), but white.

The engraving apparently was reworked from one printed a year earlier in Harper’s Weekly, of a large carte de visite available from the National Freedman’s Relief Association; this kind of recycling of images was common in 19th-century American periodicals. However, the figure on the left is an amalgamation of the body of dark-skinned Isaac White and the head of light-skinned Charles Taylor, also in the original image; Isaac’s hand was lightened to match Charles’s skin tone. The engraving is, in fact, fairly crude, especially when compared with the original, highlighting that probably they were done by different people. Unfortunately, Isaac’s name didn’t get changed in the process. The author of the piece probably worked from the illustration, as the work refers to Isaac’s “light complexion.”

Why was the figure changed? The focus of the piece is on the fact that while it may not be possible to tell the difference between children of the same father, Southern law made a very real distinction based on the status of their mothers. The fact was the basis for a story by Augusta Moore printed in the Companion a month later. Perhaps the editors of the Companion decided to emphasize the vagaries of parentage by “including” one of the other light-skinned children in the original image.

Individual cartes of the individuals could be bought from the National Freedman’s Relief Association in 1864; several are online at the Library of Congress web site (loc.gov).

“White Slaves” (from Youth’s Companion, March 9, 1865; p. 38)
illus of 4 people
Isaac White. Rebecca Huger. Robert Whitehead. Rosina Downs.


[Illustration on p. 37]

We offer our young friends to-day, the portraits of four youths, who were formerly slaves, but who have been made free by the successes of our army and navy in Louisiana. They lived in New Orleans, and are now probably studying in the schools which Gen. Banks established in that city for the education of the children of freedmen.

One of them, the tall figure in the background, is a full-blooded negro. His name is Robert Whitehead. The boy, who is called Isaac White, is of light complexion. The two girls are perfectly white, and are named Rebecca Huger and Rosina Downs.

Let our friends not be surprised that these girls are white. They are in fact as light colored, and we dare say, as good looking as most of our young readers of their sex. And so it often is at the South. Large numbers of the slaves are white. This indicates one of the evils, and the great wickedness of slavery. The white slave children are not unfrequently the children of their masters. Often a number of children will grow up together in the same family. They play together as companions. They are all as fair to look upon as you or I, and in the sight of God there is no reason why there should be any difference between one and another. They are brothers and sisters, for they have the same father. Yet a part of them are slaves. Why? Because their mother was a slave. The others are free born, for their mother was the wife of their father. The poor white children of the slave mother are sold like brutes to the highest bidder, by their worse than brute father, while their free born brothers and sisters, who are not whiter than they in complexion, or purer in heart, inherit the father’s wealth, and enjoy the blessings of that freedom which is the choicest earthly gift from God to man. Thus slavery degrades and makes fiendish the dearest relations and the purest instincts of humanity.

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