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Stylish Black Victorians Seen Through Lenses

Stylish Black Victorians seen through camera lenses offer stunning portraits from the era. The subjects are successful professionals, artists, athletes, musicians, political figures and everyday citizens. Some of these images have only recently surfaced. Most have been in archives waiting for the world to see.

Stylish Black Victorians Dressed To Impress

Following are some of our favorite Stylish Black Victorians from previous posts.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (c. 1843 – August 15, 1880) was raised in Victorian High Society and embraced by Queen Victoria’s family. Born a princess in Africa, her parents were killed when she was a child. Her people were slaughtered or sold into slavery by King Gezo, a neighboring African King. In Britain, she became one of the most stylish Black Victorians.

Peter Jackson (3 July 1861 – 13 July 1901) was a famed Australian heavyweight boxer with an international career. Considered one of the most “scientific” and technical boxers of his time, Jackson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.  He was known as one of the most stylish Black Victorians among men.

Aida Overton Walker (February 14, 1880 – October 11, 1914) broke stereotypes of the Victorian Era Stage both as an African American and as a female musical performer. In vaudeville and musical theater, she was praised by critics and loved by audiences. As a result, she achieved steady financial success throughout her career.

She regularly performed in white venues in New York, an achievement few African-American entertainers of the Victorian Era could claim. Throughout her life she was considered one of the most stylish Black Victorians.

Marie Selika Williams (c. 1849 – May 19, 1937) was considered one of the great coloratura sopranos of the late 19th century. As a leading singer of her day, she was the first African American woman to perform at the White House in 1878.

South African Choir Toured 1891-1893

The South African Choir’s tour began in Britain and continued to Canada and America. They performed widely in Britain, including an appearance for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, her royal residence on the Isle of Wight.

While in England, they sat for portraits as a group and individually at the London Stereoscopic Company known for their carte de visites.

In some of the portraits, the group wears Victorian outfits while others show them in quasi- traditional, tribal dress. The latter proved popular with British and American audiences.

The portraits from plate-glass negatives were published in The London Illustrated News in 1891. They were not seen for 120 years.

In November 2014 they became the centerpiece of the dramatic exhibition entitled Black Chronicles II.

“As a curated body of work, these photographs present new knowledge and offer different ways of seeing the black subject in Victorian Britain, and contribute to an ongoing process of redressing structural absence within the historical record.” (Autograph.org)

According to South African History Online, these are rare, early images of black South Africans.

The contacts between black South Africans and the African American community in the United States played an important part in the development of the South African intelligentsia. They found in America currents of thought that they could learn from – including W. E. B Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. There were important ties between churches and cultural links as well.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866. It was the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to young men and women irrespective of color. Five years later the school was in dire financial straits. According to Fisk Jubilee Singers.org:

“George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the University. The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day.”

Their early repertoire consisted of traditional spirituals with some contemporary songs. They traveled along the path of the Underground Railroad. Their tours also took them to England and Europe. Some of their early performances inspired hostility from audiences expecting the usual “minstrel style of music.

The successful, highly talented Black Victorians used their talent to change attitudes among the predominantly white audiences.

“Eventually skepticism was replaced by standing ovations and critical praise in reviews. Gradually they earned enough money to cover expenses and send back to Fisk.”

Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida

These are a small sample of photos available through the Florida Memory Project. Although unidentified today, these images represent Black Victorians that included teachers, business owners, and local leaders of Tallahassee’s vibrant African American community. According to the State Library and Archives of Florida:

‘In the last decades of the 19th Century, white Southern society began to pass laws to reverse the gains African Americans made during Reconstruction. By 1900, the Age of Jim Crow (legal segregation) was in full swing. Yet as these images taken by Tallahassee photographer Alvan S. Harper reveal, many African Americans were able to prosper despite the social and legal restrictions they faced.’

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