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Smithsonian curator has a fondness for a photo album from the Civil War


For Black History Month, Smithsonian curator Aaron Bryant recently shared with NPR his favorite Black photographic subjects in the museum's collection. One he connects with - an album from the Civil War.

AARON BRYANT: When you look at a photograph, you not only see history captured in a way - you know, something from someone's past - but memory as well, because there are so many stories behind the photograph that we might not know. But through research, you can uncover so much more behind that two-dimensional object that's on a sheet of paper, essentially.


BRYANT: We have a small photo album of about 18 Civil War soldiers, and they're all Black soldiers. And the images - I think they're tintypes - and the images are about the size of a fingernail. So these are teeny, tiny, little photographs on tin, and they're in a small album that might be two, 2 1/2 inches high and wide. And the album is small enough to fit into a vest pocket or inside your coat.


BRYANT: What's extraordinary about this album would be that these are Black Civil War soldiers, but it also raises the question, why was this album made and why was it made to be carried around, apparently, in someone's pocket? And so the story is the captain was white, his soldiers were Black, and they held a special place in his heart because apparently he had gotten really ill, and they helped to nurse him back to health and save his life. And so for the rest of his life, he had this album to always remember these soldiers. And when you hear this story, it's just absolutely amazing, particularly when it's conveyed by the descendants of the troop leader.


BRYANT: Two or three of the members of the family came in to tell us the story. And then when they showed us the album - which, if I recall correctly, they had wrapped in tissue paper - and we all looked at it, you know, people began to cry because it was just absolutely amazing to think that this was a very different perspective on American history, relationships between African Americans and white Americans. So many of us, you know, became misty-eyed as we looked at this teeny, tiny, little album with these small photographs.

And so, of course, as historical evidence, this album and these photographs are really important. But again, going back to the idea that photographs are not just historical evidence. They are, in so many ways, a reflection of humanity. And if you can understand the humanity of the subjects captured or the people who actually owned these photographs, you might be able to get in touch with your own humanity in a very different kind of way.


MARTÍNEZ: That was Smithsonian curator Aaron Bryant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM TWISS' "OLD SOLDIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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