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These Photo Albums Offer a Rare Glimpse of 19th-Century Boston’s Black Community

A new look at Boston’s black abolitionists at the Athenaeum library via Smithsonian

With a quiet, unflinching confidence, Virginia L. Molyneaux Hewlett Douglass posed for the photographer, one slender hand rustling the pleats of her fine silk dress. Although portraits were trendy and accessible in the 1860s when hers was shot, hand-colored photographs were a luxury, and this one is saturated with shades of emerald and lilac, underlining Virginia’s wealth and high social standing as the wife of Frederick Douglass, Jr., son of the celebrated abolitionist. Her name is handwritten above the portrait in flowery cursive as Mrs. Frederick Douglas, pasted into one of two recently discovered albums that have the potential to change much of what we know of the network of African-Americans centered around the steep north slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill in the 1860s and beyond.

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