The Black Collectors Who Championed African-American Art during the U.S. Civil War

By Jordon McDonald
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
During the late 19th century, in the midst of the United States Civil War, two free Black men set out to plan an art exhibition. At a time when the future of chattel slavery and Black life hung in the balance of a national quarrel, these men, William H. Dorsey and Edward M. Thomas, negotiated their precarious freedoms through the collection and promotion of Black art. Thomas, who worked for the government as a messenger of the House of Representatives, had established himself outside of work as a fervent collector of art and literature. His collection—which boasted 600 volumes, artworks, coinage, autographs, and archival documents—was stored in his home at the corner of Washington, D.C.’s K and 17th streets. [More