The Arabella Chapman Project

arabella chapman university of michigan clements library

A tintype of Arabella Chapman. / photo via The Arabella Chapman Project, University of Michigan William L. Clements Library

A little more than a year ago a pair of photo albums depicting a 19th century African-American family in Albany surfaced at a University of Michigan library. That prompted the Arabella Chapman Project, in which an African-American women's history class at U-M researched the history of the eponymous Albany resident:

What can we learn from two photo albums assembled by an African American woman and her family in the last decades of the nineteenth century? Their pages are filled with layers of family, community, and politics. Assembled in Albany, NY and North Adams, MA -- tintype, carte-de-visite, and Brownie images -- Arabella Chapman's albums tell histories both intimate and epic.
Black Americans, including Arabella's family and neighbors, sat for and then assembled their own images, crafting counter-narratives that challenged a rising tide of racism. At the same time, in their images are a politics of pleasure. From careful sartorial choices in formal portraits to rare scenes of leisure, the Chapman albums provide us an intimate glimpse into how black Americans embodied the lived pleasure of everyday life.

Here's a bit more about Arabella Chapman from a University of Michigan news service article about the project:

She was born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1859, less than two years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
The students discovered that her family, including she and her parents, John R. and Harriet Alfarata, moved with her brother William, to Albany, N.Y., in 1864, where her younger brothers John and Charles were later born.
"It's likely that they moved there because, for African-Americans in the mid-19th century, Albany held an important place in political culture," [professor Martha] Jones said. "It had been home to key black abolitionist activists including Stephen Meyers, whose daughter Liz is pictured in the Chapman albums."
Arabella is best remembered for becoming the first African-American student to graduate from Upstate New York's "Albany Free Academy"--known today as Albany High School. By 1880, she had married Clarence Miller and was living with her family in North Adams, Mass.

The project has posted the albums online so you can see the photos for yourself. It's a fascinating peek into the lives of an Albany family more than a century ago.

This photo album reminded us of Clifford Oliver's research into the 19th century photographs of the Henry family of Whitehall, New York -- they were related to the prominent Baltimore family of Troy -- and his effort to learn more about their life.

[via Albany Archives, who's been contact with Martha Jones via Twitter (follow the link)]

Earlier on AOA: Stephen & Harriet Myers, station agents for Albany's portion of the Underground Railroad

Comments

Utterly invigorating. Wow.

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