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The Way They Are: Preserving the Material Culture of Black Victorians & 19th Century Historically Accurate Representation

Tanzy Ward

Recently, in honor of Historic Preservation Month, I wrote a featured article in Worthwhile Magazine celebrating the accurate representation and realistic defining attributes of Black Americana. I am honored to include the article within the Historic Preservation Blog section of Zanathia Jewelry. 
 When reflecting on the primary image of Black Victorians, incorrect caricatures fueled by racism and white supremacy ideologies have overwhelmingly misconstrued the authentic essence of Black Americana and its material culture. 19th-century societal views significantly diminished the Black Victorian image and created a false narrative that did not reflect their true identity. Yet, the Black Victorian family rebelled against the accepted stereotypes and bravely documented their sentiments. Their heirlooms, the precious valuables they owned, were routinely photographed in portraits and passed down from generation to generation. For May’s Historic Preservation Month, we honor their stories and the historically significant material culture they left us.
Photo of an unidentified elegant Black Victorian lady in a convex glass wood frame surrounded by a 19th century Era Aventurine beaded necklace. Photo courtesy of the Tanzy A. Ward Collection and necklace courtesy of Zanathia Jewelry Collection.
 Although systematic racism and societal injustices plagued Black Victorians, they often practiced many of the same Victorian trends as their white counterparts. Unfortunately, their memento photographic jewelry and elegant portraits have been denied proper representation within the Victorian Era and have historically received less acclaim and acknowledgment. However, the family photo albums featuring Black Victorians prove their impeccable style and poise, a radical image that debunked the false caricatures used to represent them. By adequately preserving and archiving their material culture, we can celebrate and uphold a non-distorted representation that reflects who they are. They were, and still are, people of dignity belonging to historically significant stories. Like other Victorians, they owned and wore keepsakes containing their loved one’s beloved portrait. They valued quality, and many would routinely dress in lovely hand-sewn garments, looking distinguishably elegant on picture day. Many photographs of Black Victorians feature ladies and gentlemen wearing Prince Albert chains, intricately designed scarf pins, elaborate chatelaines, dapper top hats, and other popular, stylish trends of the 19th century. They also wrote beautiful letters to loved ones, commissioned & bought monogrammed gifts from Victorian jewelry catalogs, treasured their wedding rings, and other material culture that reflected what they valued and cared for.
Antique Victorian Era Daguerreotype of an unidentified dapper Black Victorian gentleman in an intricate decorative gold frame. Courtesy of the Tanzy A. Ward Collection.
Antique photograph of an Unidentified elegant Black Victorian Lady in an intricate ornate gold frame. Courtesy of the Tanzy A. Ward Collection.
I still fondly remember the first memento-mourning piece I collected that featured a Black Victorian. During the 19th century, it was a common trend to feature a dearly departed loved one’s photo on a stickpin. Honoring the living and deceased was a beautiful sentimental gesture many Victorians routinely practiced. Yet, it is still rare to find a memento item that includes a Black Victorian compared to the vast antique mementos featuring White Victorians. When I curated my first memento item that showcased a Black Victorian, I was overjoyed, curious, amazed, and eager to find more. I wondered about the woman’s life story and those who loved her. Although many of these precious historical items do not include identifiable information to locate descendants, I am honored to be a gatekeeper of their material culture and continue the mission to preserve their stories. The material culture of Black Victorians is a significant primary source that should be protected, as they help retell a story that is often unsung and undervalued.
Portrait of an Unidentified elegant Black Victorian lady featured on a stickpin and surrounded by roses with a sweetheart bracelet at the upper top right corner. Memento stickpin courtesy of the Tanzy A. Ward Collection. Antique sweetheart bracelet courtesy of the Zanathia Jewelry Collection.

It is rather compelling and inspirational that Black Victorians used the camera lens to combat racist perspectives and the false portrayals that plagued them. We can connect with their stories and identify some aspects of their lives through portraits and other sentimental valuables. To ensure accurate representation is consistently emphasized, historic preservation is a vital tool and ongoing project for those who consider themselves gatekeepers and advocates of their unsung stories. Crucial foundational parts of historic preservation cannot thrive without family members passing the ‘gatekeeper’ torch and passion to other generations. With these consistent preservation efforts, the unsung stories of Black Victorians will continue to be honored, researched, and accurately retold with each generation. When I reflect on the Black Victorian ancestors and their sentimental heirlooms, their stories are a significant part of history, present the need for inclusive representation, and should be accurately preserved to reflect who they are and their foundational contributions to 19th-century society.

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