know your black history: the need to reclaim art and historical artifacts

March 2, 2017
Intro by Nick Douglas*, Written by Jeremy Simien**, AFROPUNK contributors

Many of us do not realize that one in ten black Americans were free before the start of the Civil War. These free people of color were often the owners, creators and collectors of art, historical artifacts and documents. Many events dispersed, disrupted and fragmented this process.

Starting in 1817, the American Colonization Society moved more that 13,000 free people of color from their homes in the U.S. to present-day Liberia. Starting in the 1830s slaves from Northern states were sold into slavery in the Deep South in a period known as the “Black Trail of Tears.” It is no coincidence that in the 1830s free people of color were forced to leave many southern states. It was feared they would foment slave rebellions. In the lead-up to the Civil War many free people of color chose to leave the U.S. for Mexico, Haiti and France.

At the end of Reconstruction and during Jim Crow people of color were forced to flee their homes and land, fearing for their lives and families. In the 1880s lynchings became epidemic, usually targeting black landowners and business owners. During Jim Crow, after the turn of the century white instigated riots in cities like New Orleans, Washington D.C., New York, Atlanta and Tulsa (in the district known as Black Wall Street) destroyed and disrupted thriving black communities and destroyed wealth, including art and historic artifacts.

In the 1920s the Great Migration began, further dispersing families and their belongings, including their art and historical artifacts.

People of color passed into whiteness throughout U.S. history, and much of their history, artifacts and historical documents have been hidden and disconnected from black identity out of the need to take on a white identity. All these events dispersed, disrupted and fragmented the collection and identification of art, historical artifacts and documents of people of color.

Despite these obstacles, cities that have had historically large populations of free people of color like Charlotte, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston have been great creative sources of their artistic energy, art and historical artifacts. Many of these cities have museums to preserve this history. New Orleans, with its unique history and culture surrounding Creoles, free people of color, Native Americans and slaves, has numerous museums to tell the story and retain the history of these groups.

Jeremy Simien is a collector of historic art in New Orleans. Here is his view and advice about reclaiming our art and historical documents:

The art of the Free People of Color offers an amazing beacon of light to all people, especially those of African descent. The fact that most of these depictions were self-commissioned offers an important insight into the social consciousness of the sitters, the zeitgeist of the age and their place. Until recently, most antebellum illustrations of black people that have surfaced show depictions of slavery. These images were not commissioned by people of color and in most cases depict them as props or in caricature in a perpetual state of slavery Many of these works are not particularly flattering as they were not executed for the benefit of people of color. These depictions are important, as they serve as an important reminder of slavery and the once held societal perception of African Americans. Slavery is indisputably important historical experience of most people of African descent in America. However, these images alone may render viewers with an impression that people of African descent were at some point complacent in their disposition during this period of time. This was never the case. The art depicting Free People of color highlights the unwavering resilience of the African spirit in the Americas. In these depictions, we see that despite the institution of slavery and the difficulties faced people of color resisted and obtained success. These achievements are forever memorialized in pigment on canvas and in photographs. Through the pursuit and acquisition of this art, I have been able to reclaim and rediscover some of our stories once lost to time. I hope that these pieces that I have collected will influence and encourage others to search for deeper narratives to express and represent our history.

Miniature of free man of color on ivory 1840

It wasn’t easy for me to get into this. My background is in the recording arts, not in the visual arts. As a recording engineer, I handled many aspects of audio production and tons of projects. Very few equipped me with the tools that I would need to began to collect art. . I have come to realize that underneath all of the glamour, marketing via limited edition packages, most of the things that I collected in the past were products. We, as young people are targeted and programmed to participate in consumption. While, I’ve always collected things and considered myself a collector, I was actually just a consumer. Many young people fall victim to this sort of thing, especially people of color. I’m not trying to criticize anyone who collects the latest and greatest sneakers, gadgets, and blu-ray releases. However, you should know that the CEO of that sneaker company, whose product you’re drooling over, is probably an art collector. We need to reclaim our art. Reclaiming our art is reclaiming and rediscovering our history. Most black people have never heard of the 19th century free men of Color portraitist Julien Hudson or Joshua Johnson or the other free men of color who were cabinetmakers/craftsmen: Celestine Glapion, Deutreil Barjon or Thomas Day but the auction houses have. While there are a few major and important collector’s of African descent, we need more! We need our material culture to be in our hands, so we can be in control of the narrative. We have to tell our own stories! We have to re-tell the stories that our history books told so poorly. The pieces that I collect not only serve as visual cues, but also as evidence of our unique past. Against all odds, some people who were slaves or the children of slaves or the grandchildren of slaves were able to obtain their freedom. These people then ascended to the top. We need to remember this and preserve these pieces so that they can do what great art does, inspire.

1820 picture of Veracruz woman of color with amulet

For those reading this, who have an interest in collecting or staring to collect, here is some advice: First off, the internet is your best friend, best weapon, best soldier and most valuable tool. It is a vast sea with limitless possibilities yet has navigable waters. It’s not just for memes and whatever else too many people are using it exclusively for. As I said before, when I began this journey, I had no academic training in the visual arts and knew very little about antique paintings. Most of what I have learned has been through reading art on the internet and ordering books online on the internet. I also made the choice early on to visit every museum in my area and to examine pieces relating to this era and genre. This allowed me to become familiar and recognize the age, school and style of certain artists. I also contacted scholars and curators via social media, email and then asked questions. Some answered my questions others didn’t. I always then took the answers that I received and looked for more edification through source verification on the internet. I gained a lot of knowledge by doing this.

Portrait attributed to artist Julian Hudson free man of color 1828

I also decided that the way to become involved was to get on the scene at the art/antique auction houses in New Orleans. Aside from the local auction houses, through the internet I was also able to bid and win pieces from all over the world. I did not even step set foot in most of these auction houses. We live in an age where we can literally find, research, purchase and then ship objects all from behind the screens of our phones. This is an amazing thing! One can’t only rely on this. Get out there too! Make an effort to meet collectors of antiques and art. I met all types of collectors. Some who were of color but most were not. I listened carefully to any advice that they were willing to offer. Some of it was useful, some was junk. It was not easy dealing with some of these people. Some of these antique dealers and art collectors were not the warmest of characters. Some of these collectors and institutions will look at you and make you feel unwelcome. This is nothing new for people of color. We’ve caught this show before. Some of them will be condescending simply because you may be young. Others will look down on you because you don’t fit the description of what they think a collector should look like. Whatever the case, until you begin to find pieces that they wish that they could find, many will ignore you. There are haters in all zip codes with all sizes of bank accounts. Don’t worry or be discouraged by them or this sort of thing. Remember that you are collecting and searching for pieces to tell our story and share an understanding of our unique history. Snobbery is not exclusive to the art collecting world, it exist in all worlds. Lastly, if you are going to succeed, it is up to you and your commitment alone. Thoughts become things. If you focus on anything, you will attract it. This along with action is essential. I scan the internet and online auction catalogs for hours a day. I also read and review antique publications and take note of auction prices. Some of the pieces that I have acquired have been made possible by acquiring other pieces of value and trading/selling them to fund the pieces that I need! Simple entrepreneurship and economics is a part of this all.

Late 19th century picture of Afro Mexican

Many of the skills that I have exercised in finding and collecting this material culture were directly inspired by the research that I’ve conducted on the Free People of Color. The story of the Free People of Color offers a narrative of resistance, persistence and survival. The story is vital because it illustrates that despite the fact that people of African descent have been victimized, they refused to remain victims. In the face of oppression, people of color who were afforded freedom did not only survive, but thrived. Through entrepreneurial efforts they were able to elevate not only themselves but their community. This is powerful, and it is this belief that makes me put my shoes on in the morning and stay up some nights searching for these lost pieces. I have found pieces pertaining to Louisiana’s Free People of Color/Creoles all over the world. Even in some unlikely places. Some of this was luck. However, most of it was because like the Free People of Color, I have been persistent in my willingness to learn, adapt and be innovative in my pursuit of these treasures. Through this material culture, we can rediscover our people, their spirit and learn even more about ourselves. There is enough room for more collectors. In fact, there is a need for it!

1850 painting of femme de couleur 1850

1860 free woman of color carte d’ vise found in France

Carte d’ vise of Nanette Fortin free woman of color with close ties to Louisiana’s governor family

*Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana and the forthcoming book Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestors, a Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés. You can contact him at

**Jeremy K. Simien is an art and antique collector. He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and is a 9th generation Louisiana Creole of Color. Jeremy’s interest in the arts began at an early age. His involvement includes not only the visual arts, but also the musical arts. He has scored various independent films, and has also enjoyed a successful career as a recording engineer. His résumé includes production credits for dozens of musical albums, as well as a production credit for a television pilot. His passion for collecting began with antique and vintage timepieces. This interest would expand into a primary focus on 18th and 19th century portrait paintings. In addition to the dozens of American and European portrait paintings that Jeremy and his wife have in their collection, they also loan rare and early Louisiana pieces to Museums and other institutions focused on preservation. Jeremy’s collecting passion is fueled by a desire to offer insight into the gens de couleur libres–or free people of color–of Louisiana. At 31 years old, Jeremy has amassed one of the largest private collections pertaining to Louisiana’s so-called Creoles of color. Feel free to contact Jeremy at: for more information on antique paintings/pictures or other pieces of material culture that you may have relating to people of African descent.