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Cool Things - African American Tintype

Tintype of African American woman Although estimates vary, as many as 1,000 escaping slaves may have passed through Kansas Territory via the Underground Railroad. The unidentified woman pictured on this tintype may may have been one of them.

The Underground Railroad was a secret system of people who helped slaves escape in the years before and during the Civil War (1861-1865). There were routes all over the country, even through Kansas Territory where the slavery issue was in the process of being decided.

When Kansas Territory was created in 1854, it quickly became the center of the nation's attention as people battled over whether the state would allow slavery within its borders. Some people came here to fight for a cause, but most were ordinary folks seeking new opportunities. Those who tried to remain neutral often had to choose sides, and individuals who stuck to their beliefs could become targets of violence in "Bleeding Kansas." It took seven years to resolve the issue, and even then Kansas became a state only after southern states began seceding from the Union.

Ardent Abolitionists

The family who donated this tintype were descendants of Luther Platt and his brothers—all ardent abolitionists who came to Kansas to fight for the antislavery cause. As abolitionists, they supported the complete abolition (or abolishment) of slavery. Several Platt brothers came here from Illinois, settling in Wabaunsee County in 1856 where they actively aided slaves escaping to Canada or northern free states. The woman in this photograph could have been someone they helped to freedom.

Clues in the Photograph

Unfortunately, the woman's name has been lost in the century-and-a-half since the photo was taken. The image does offer several important clues, though. The style of her dress and hair date from the early 1860s, right around the time the Civil War began. Slavery was still legal in the United States, however, her wedding ring tells us she's a free woman because slaves couldn't legally marry. Why would a mid-19th century white family own a photograph of an unidentified black woman? It wasn't uncommon for escaped slaves to stay in touch with their defenders, and the woman may have sent her photo to the family who helped her escape.

Although most slaves fled through Kansas in the early years of its settlement, later many decided to settle here. This was particularly true after the Civil War began, when hundreds crossed the border from neighboring Missouri (a slave state). The name "Kansas" symbolized freedom because of the fame of John Brown and other abolitionists, and both free and slave came to see the territory as a land of opportunity.

This rare and valuable image is also a symbol of that opportunity. It is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - African American Tintype

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2004

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.