I’ve been preparing a selection of Victorian-era Christmas newspapers to sell at the shop. Since I wasn’t able to help the Harper’s Ferry Merchant’s Association decorate the town with fresh Christmas greens because I spent most of the day waiting for an electrician to fix an overhead light, today was a good day to look over some scanned illustrations and articles.
One newspaper cover, Harper’s Weekly dated Saturday, December 25, 1875 was particularly striking. It features an African-American man selling a holly branch. He wears tattered clothes and is talking to a white woman with her child, both of whom are well-dressed. At first, I was reluctant to post this image and also considered not displaying it at all because it may be considered in bad taste to show it. I looked at it some more and thought about the Christmas theme and read the accompanying article and convinced myself that it is an entirely appropriate post.
In the United States, the Civil War ended on April 18, 1865. When you look at the image, you’ll see that the man is not only an African American, but old enough to have been a slave. He appears to take pride in selling this greenery. He is an entrepreneur and the money he makes from the sale will most likely be his. It is a casual scene. It is remarkable in context.
This newspaper was published in 1875, a mere 10 years after the Civil War and depicts a scene in Richmond, Virginia which served as the capital of the Confederate States.
That same year, on March 1, 1875, the Civil Rights Act was passed. It was, according to PBS.org, passed by the “last biracial U.S. Congress of the 19th century. … It protected all Americans, regardless of race, in their access to public accommodations and facilities such as restaurants, theaters, trains and other public transportation, and protected the right to serve on juries. However, it was not enforced, and the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1883.” The bill was introduced in 1870 by Senator Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts and its chief sponsor was Congressman Benjamin Butler, also a Republican from Massachusetts.
The woman in the illustration did not have the right to vote. She would not be able to vote until 1910 when the 19th Amendment was passed.
The accompanying article indicates further how far the United States has come since 1875:
I didn’t know that gathering and selling of Christmas greens was banned due to its affiliation with the Church of Rome. Now there are 6 Roman Catholics on the Supreme Court.
The first Roman Catholic Justice was Roger Taney who wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case of 1857 which said that people of African descent would never be citizens. This decision, which has never been directly overruled by the Supreme Court, but was rendered moot by the 13th Amendment, said specifically that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” The case was brought to the Supreme Court from Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Missouri.
In 1857, the Secret Six formed. In 1858, John Brown attacked two homesteads, confiscated property and liberated 11 slaves, delivering them to Canada from Missouri.
On October 16, 1859, John Brown arrives in Harper’s Ferry.
These are the things a 136 year old Christmas illustration can bring to mind. Enjoy!