Preserving a Portrait of Freedom
On sunny winter day this past February at a storage facility near Suffolk, VA, my cousin Betty entrusted me with a precious family gift, an original drawing of my great-great-great grandfather Exum White. My intention was to hang it in my home, just as cousin Betty had done in hers for many years, but first I wanted to make sure I conserved it.
The portrait is a crayon enlargement of an original photo my third great grandfather took with his brothers around the turn of the twentieth century. It is part of a hand-coloring tradition that traces back to the emergence of portrait photography starting in the 1850s. During this time period, artists were hired to enhance, colorize or enlarge family photos using India ink, charcoal and crayon.
Portrait of the Man
Exum White was born a free person of color in Nansemond (now Suffolk), VA around 1825 to Meredith White (1800–1875) and Parma Small White (1810-aft 1860). I can trace our family an additional generation to Meredith’s mother Patsey, born sometime in the late 1700s, who shows up as the head of a free colored household in the 1820 census for Nansemond VA. I can extend our history even further through Y-DNA testing. One of my DNA matches, a direct paternal descendant of our ancestor Meredith White (1800–1875 of Suffolk,VA), is haplogroup E-M2 which dates back 30,000 years to a common ancestor in Sub Saharan Africa.
Exum lived a remarkable life. He was literate, educated, and owned properties in Suffolk and the Great Dismal Swamp. In 1858 he married Adaline Reid and they had 11 children together including my great-great grandmother Martha. He voted for the first time in 1867 when blacks were first allowed and successfully won a compensation suit against the US government in 1871 for property the Union army confiscated during the Civil War. He served as President of the Republican Party of Suffolk VA in 1878 and fought for black voting rights as a leader with the Negro Industrial and Agricultural Society (NIAS) in 1902. Exum along with his brother Edwin was also Prince Hall Freemason. They were members of the Mount Vernon Lodge #48 in Suffolk Virginia.
I’ve not been able to locate a death record for Exum. State wide registration of death certificates did not begin in Virginia until 1912. My best estimate on his death date comes from Freemason records. His name was no longer listed in the annual Freemason communications starting in 1909 which makes me think that this was the year he died. This is supported by the fact that he was not listed in the 1910 census.
Preserving the Portrait
Once I brought the portrait home, I scheduled a meeting with a paper conservationist for a consultation on how to preserve it. Removing the portrait from its original frame revealed more about its history. The stamp we found on the back of the portrait revealed its completion date as November 1, 1919. The address for “M(rs). Martha” White Richards, Exum’s daughter and my great-great grandmother, was hand-written on the back, indicating that it was to be delivered to her and that she might have commissioned it. The portrait originally hung in her home. We also found a signature for a “C. Smith” on the back which I believe could be the signature of the artist.
The front of the portrait was in reasonable condition. The paper had slight concave curve and the surface had experienced some foxing (age-based deterioration that causes spotting and browning of old paper). Insect grazing was also visible around the perimeter of the portrait. We aligned on a strategy to clean the original portrait, create a digital reproduction of it for framing, and then place the original within an archival box for safekeeping.
The reproduction now hangs in my home where my sons can be reminded of their great-great-great-great grandfather Exum White’s amazing legacy. His presence in our home offers us valuable perspective day to day as we live our lives. We are reminded of the fight he led throughout his life to realize freedom and full citizenship for himself and his community. We are reminded to never take our rights as citizens for granted. We are reminded of our responsibility to do our part to ensure to realize and protect full rights and equal justice under the law for all. His portrait is a precious gift that has been passed down in our family for the last 99 years. I feel a responsibility to preserve it for the next 99 so that his legacy continues to live on.