When Freedom Was But A Promise

As a poor kid in Detroit, Jackie Napoleon Wilson began haunting thrift shops, where he could buy a pair of shoes for a nickel. He also started collecting other things he found there. ""I consider it an honor to admire someone's forgotten treasures,'' says Wilson, an attorney and the grandson of a slave who lived to the age of 107. Now The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., is admiring some of Wilson's treasures in a moving exhibition, ""Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography.'' It's comprised of 46 photographs from Wilson's collection and 22 images -- most never before shown -- from the museum's own archives. The show runs from Feb. 28 through June 18.

Slavery is the exhibition's powerful subtext. Getty curator Weston Naef, who first spotted one of Wilson's pictures in a Detroit newspaper, says, ""For 130 years, the white establishment and many blacks have wanted to forget it ever happened. I'm astonished that the subject, in photographs, has never been done before in a museum.'' It's our turn to be astonished. ""Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton,'' taken in South Carolina in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, shows slaves about to be freed as part of Lincoln's war strategy to disrupt the South. Their meager possessions beside them, these people faced an uncertain, and often cruel, future.

When a photographer is an exploiter -- blatant or subtle, it makes no difference -- the subject seems trapped and defenseless. But with the least bit of empathy -- even neutrality -- the photographer can capture human dignity. Take the picture ""Madonna,'' by an unknown but presumably free black photographer around 1860. The mother gazes at us as peacefully as the child rests in her arms. Then we notice the sitter's left hand, carefully posed to reveal a wedding ring. Marriage, we recall, was illegal for slaves; children were sold at the master's whim. So this beautiful free woman was a real pioneer of family values.