Replica of Wedgwood 18th-century slave medallion
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    Early 20th-century take on Wedgwood’s slave medallion

    The pencil drawing had all the hallmarks of the famous Wedgwood slave medallion from the 18th century.

    It showed an African American man, chains around his wrists and the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” printed across the top. The man in this drawing, however, had realized features – a stubby beard and the painted red lips that later became stereotypically common but were absent from Wedgwood’s original image.

    The drawing looked and felt early 20th-century American. Its message was just as relevant then as it is now in the era of “Black Lives Matter,” where it is in the form of a demand rather than a supplication.

    Up-close view of the "Am I Not A Man And A Brother" drawing.

    Up-close view of the “Am I Not A Man And A Brother” drawing.

    The drawing was among a group of papers, photos and documents I bought at auction a few months ago. I recognized the quotation from Wedgwood’s slave medallion and was curious about who had imitated it. The front of the drawing also bore the initials “A.A.S.,” which I assumed was the acronym for the American Anti-Slavery Society. The society was the country’s largest and most influential abolitionist group during the 19th century.

    Glued to the back of the drawing was some writing in Hebrew, which I could not decipher. There was also a penciled note that the drawing was “Not 19th century.”

    The original image of the chained slave with his soulful plea was made around 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood, an English potter and abolitionist, as a way to raise money to end slavery in the British Empire. Wedgwood and other Englishmen were instrumental in persuading their country to abolish its slave trade. The medallion, in the form of a cameo, was adopted by the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England and picked up by abolitionists in the United States, including Benjamin Franklin who received a batch from Wedgwood.

    Full view of the "Am I A Not A Man and A Brother" drawing.

    Full view of the “Am I A Not A Man and A Brother” drawing.

    It was also used on many other objects, including men’s snuff boxes, women hatpins and necklaces, and household items. British and American female abolitionists created their own version, replacing the slave man with a slave woman and changing the word “man” to “woman.”

    The American Anti-Slavery Society (my Google search showed the initials as AASS) adopted the medallion as its symbol. The society held its organizing meeting in Philadelphia in 1833, and its mission was the immediate elimination of slavery. Its most prominent leader was William Lloyd Garrison, owner of the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator.” By 1838, the society had 250,000 members and 1,350 affiliates.

    The society sent speakers across the North to rally support against slavery, and Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown were among its most important speakers. Brown is known for having written the first novel by an African American in this country, “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States,” along with a travelogue, a play and a collection of anti-slavery songs.

    The society published materials and journals against slavery, petitioned Congress to end the practice and hosted abolitionist meetings.

    Image from Josiah Wedgwood's 18th-century medallion.

    Image from Josiah Wedgwood’s 18th-century medallion.


    The group split in two in 1840 when Garrison denounced the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document, and joined with and supported women’s rights. The other group – which named itself the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society – felt that the constitution was a framework under which slavery could be ended, but was opposed to granting rights to women. That group disbanded in the 1850s, and American Anti-Slavery Society in 1870.

    Douglass also disagreed with Garrison’s interpretation of the Constitution, and the two friends and compatriots parted ways.

    As for the drawing at auction, I’d love to know its origins, and whether the Hebrew script glued to the back had any connection to it. If you can help me out, please message me in the Contact Box below.

    The back side of the "Am I A Man" drawing.

    The back side of the “Am I Not A Man” drawing.

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