The Visual Culture of the Black Female Friendship Album : The Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten Albums
Erika Piola, Curator of Graphic Arts, Library Company of Philadelphia
Fig. 1 Sarah Mapps Douglass, “A token of love from me to thee,” Amy Matilda Cassey Album, 1833-1856. Watercolor, undated. Library Company of Philadelphia.
In the hand-written preface to her friendship album, African American antislavery activist Amy Matilda Cassey (1808-1856) ends her passage with the request that contributors to the volume “Enrich th[e] mental pic-nic feast.” The Amy Matilda Cassey, Martina Dickerson (1829?- ), Mary Anne Dickerson (1822-1858), and Mary Virginia Wood Forten (1815-1840) albums in the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Moorland Spingarn Research Center at Howard University are four of only five known friendship albums compiled by antebellum African American women or girls.
Nineteenth-century friendship albums incorporate elements of commonplace books that contain written scraps of knowledge, as well as autograph, year, and drawing books in their composition. Typically constructed with ornately crafted covers and acquired through booksellers, in terms of visual elements, the albums, which can sometimes originate or be described as gift books, also often contained different color and/or embossed blank pages, and occasionally plates with engraved illustrations. Their contributors showed their “friendship,” and in some cases, more so, their amity for the volume’s compiler through entries that included not only textual works, but also hand-drawn artworks. Epitomizing the era’s popular, visual, and sentimental cultures, the volumes embody the words, thoughts, and remembrances of their typically middle-class compilers and their social circle.
The Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten albums contain entries composed by men and women, many active in the antislavery movement, of original and transcribed poems, prose, essays, and watercolors and pencil sketches. (The Wood Forten album also includes a lock of hair). Topics include abolitionism and slavery, love and friendship, female beauty and refinement, motherhood, mortality, and death. The entries are not necessarily in chronological order. Their compilers were young women, twenty-five-year-old Cassey and nineteen-year-old Wood Forten, as well as girls. The Dickerson sisters began their albums when they were eleven years old. These albums belie, and yet facilitate a transparency in the deconstruction of the private and public worlds of those who enriched their pages. The individuals’ gender, race, and class often predetermines the perception of their contributions, then and now.
As argued by African American and literary studies scholar Gabrielle Forman and Black visual culture scholar Jasmine Cobb, antebellum African American women used sentimentalism’s conventions in surveilled public/private spaces as “camouflage” and within a cultural framework of an “optics of respectability.”  Cultural presuppositions about female thinking and feeling would mask the conscious and unconscious sociopolitical purposes behind the sentimentalism in their writings and art works. A visual and textual representation of a flower was/is not just a flower.
The Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten albums, in their content and construct, are consequential sources for the understanding of 19th-century visual and Black female culture. An analytical thread and constant for today’s and yesteryear’s readers of three of the albums is Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882). Douglass, a teacher, an antislavery activist, writer, and artist is the only contributor to all of the Library Company volumes. Over a half dozen written and visual works by her are found in the Cassey and Dickerson albums. Relatedly, there appear, relative to the number in Cassey, to be more original entries in the Dickerson volumes. Was this difference because they were younger when they started their albums, and because it was a possible pedagogical tool devised by their teacher Douglass? To further facilitate a possible answer for this question and to further explore the visual culture affecting and affected by these albums, this essay continues with two case studies illustrating the artistry and insights of Douglass.
A striking, oft-reproduced watercolor of a black butterfly by the hand of Douglass graces the first few pages of the Cassey album (fig. 1). The inscription below it states, “A token of love from me to thee.” The branch, as read by some contemporary viewers, is possibly one from a mulberry tree, a symbol of wisdom. Even deeper with meaning is the rendering of the black butterfly. It cannot be incidental that the butterfly is black and epitomizes the politicism camouflaged by sentimentalism possible within the pages of these albums. For Douglass and for Cassey, this symbol of beauty, grace, serenity, and freedom conceivably visually messaged the aspirations and truisms of the beauty, grace, serenity, and freedom of middle-class African American women of the North like themselves.
Fig. 2 Sarah Mapps Douglass, “Fuchsia,” in Mary Anne Dickerson Album, 1833-1882. Watercolor, 1846. Library Company of Philadelphia.
When Mary Anne Dickerson was twenty-four years old, Douglass added a watercolor of a fuchsia to her album in July 1846 (fig. 2). About four months later, and on the next page, Douglass added an allegorical description of the flower through a poem that alludes to the female body and that is likely transcribed from a published source. The entry begins “All the species of fuchsia drop their heads toward the ground ... ” The verse ends, “Beautifully, and significantly, typifying modesty.” Douglass’s choice of text not so subtly implies the beauty and complicated power of Cobb’s denoted optic of respectability to be found publicly and privately in embodied female humility. Intriguingly, following that page by Douglass, Mary Anne makes a contribution of her own to her album. She begins her essay steeped in evangelicalism with the sentence “There was a flower of most exceeding brightness.” She ends it with the remark, “For they are lovely to the eye all seeing. And of such little ones my kingdom’s made.” Was this a response to Douglass’s preceding entry?
Fig. 3 [Rose and rose buds], Amy Matilda Cassey Album, 1833-1856. Watercolor, undated. Library Company of Philadelphia.
Similarly, in the Cassey Album, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) wrote an entry in 1849 about the death of his wife and daughter that began, “Just by the side of this Rose, there grew a Rose-bud perfectly formed and softly tinged with the brightest carmine ….” Just a few pages before this text, the volume contains an unsigned watercolor of a rose and rosebuds (fig. 3). Plausibly, the watercolorist had read Payne’s contribution and drew the image in response and as a memorialization of the memory of his lost female family members.
Fig. 4 The Mother’s Joy (New York: J.C. Riker, 1833) in Mary Anne Dickerson Album, 1833-1882, p. 2. Engraving. Library Company of Philadelphia.
Furthermore, and returning to the Mary Anne Dickerson Album, what can be additionally teased within the context of visual culture, race, and gender about complementary content like “The Mother’s Joy” (fig. 4)? The album contains both a frontispiece with this title showing a white child and a contribution dated 1834 of the same name by Charlotte V. Forten (1785-1884) on the next page. Forten was the second wife of James Forten (1766-1842), and later mother-in-law to Mary Virginia Wood Forten. In her written entry, she notes she has lost her mother and invites the “lost boy” to “come live” with her. And for a time, he did, while she had the album with her to write her entry. The image of the white child, in spite of his race, still served as a touchstone to see herself as both a motherless child and a mother.
Fig. 5 Asher B. Durand, Delaware Water Gap (New York: Elam Bliss, 1830) in Mary Anne Dickerson Album, 1833-1882, p. 15. Engraving. Library Company of Philadelphia.
The visual poetics of the printed illustrations within the Mary Anne Dickerson album are rich in meaning individually as well. The seven prints include engravings by Philadelphia and New York engravers after the work of Asher B. Durand (1799-1866) and depict landscape views, including the Delaware Water Gap (fig. 5). The Gap image and five others were plates originally published in William Cullen Bryant’s The American Landscape (1830). Gift albums often repurposed scenic illustrations previously published, an un-ironic similarity to the transcribed entries. This image was originally issued as a landscape art specimen to teach its viewer about this genre. However, in the context of a friendship album held by a middle-class African American, contemporary viewers have queried whether the foreground figures appeared as freedom seekers to Mary Anne. Did this influence the decision by her or the individual who had purchased it for her to acquire that particular volume? In all likelihood, the artist Asher B. Durand conceived these figures as foreground details to provide focus, perspective, and a human element to the image. However, there is a validity that those who viewed and contributed to Mary Anne’s album possibly did perceive, in their subjective close reading of these personages, that they represented enslaved people heading north for freedom.
Fig. 6 John Cheney after Sir Thomas Lawrence, Just Seventeen (Boston: Gray & Bowen, 1831) in Mary Virginia Wood Forten, Poetry and Autographs Album Belonging to Mary Virginia Wood (1834), p. 6. Engraving. Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
The Wood Forten album, like Mary Anne’s, contained a number of reissued engravings that were published in other works. Those of Wood Forten’s album were also previously issued in the 1830 and 1831 editions of The Token: A Christmas and New Year’s Present. Three of the four were earlier included in the 1831 edition, except for Grandfather’s Hobby, which depicts a boy, seated on a chair, attired in an older man’s hat and spectacles, a cane in his lap, and reading a newspaper. Just Seventeen was published in the 1831 edition and the image of interest for this post (fig. 6). Considering the possible influence of the relatability of the prints issued in a friendship album to an album owner’s choice of a volume, did this image speak to Mary Virginia Wood Forten? Wood Forten was emancipated at the age of seventeen. She was a little older than that when she arrived in Philadelphia and when the album might have been acquired by her based on the earliest dated entry. It can be speculated that the noted age and time of life of the depicted sitter, a young white woman, with a slight smile, and holding a watch at the end of a chain around her neck resonated with Wood Forten in an era when young Black women did not see engraved portraits of themselves in gift books.
When Cassey, the Dickersons, and Wood Forten compiled their albums, a picture of their antebellum lives and social networks was created not only through the written entries, but also the works of art. Not mere illustrations, the graphic material is as powerful as the textual in the albums to begin to further understand the public and private lives of the individuals and communities that created them.
 See Jasmine Cobb, Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 75, 80.
Sections of the above post are derived from a presentation originally about the Cassey & Dickerson Friendship Album Project that was implemented in 2013 by the research and work of students at Swarthmore College and Rochester Institute of Technology.
The Private and Public Worlds of the Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten Albums
Jasmine Smith, African American History Subject Specialist and Reference Librarian, Library Company of Philadelphia
As noted earlier, the Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten albums contain entries composed by men and women, many active in the antislavery movement, of original and transcribed poems, prose, and essays in addition to works of art. Their private and public worlds grace the pages of the albums through not only the visual but also through words. The African American men and women contributors of these friendship albums realized that there was great responsibility to educate their readers on subject matters that would resonate with them. Understanding their contributions represented their respectability and social class, these contributors used their entries to further foster these attributes within their community. Cassey, Dickerson, and Wood Forten all came from elite prominent African American families, creating a close-knit community in Philadelphia. Many of the contributors as well as Cassey and Wood Forten were abolitionists. They were also active members in national and local anti-slavery societies, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the temperance movement, and the Female Vigilance Association.
The Cassey album is a volume with depth with entries from prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass (1881-1895), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), and Robert Purvis (1810-1893). Douglass’s piece is the only entry by a former enslaved man in the album. Yet, he insists on not discussing the matter of slavery. In his opinion, friendship albums should demand “beauty” and “elegance” which he is unable to contribute due to his enslaved past and involvement with the abolition of slavery. In fact, he apologies for his lack of such qualities. He mentions, “this my dear friend is my apology for not writing something becoming the pages of your precious Album.” Instead he writes about how he finds more pleasure when he “walk[s] upon uneven – uncultivated and stony ground – gazing upon huge rocks” than walking through gardens gazing at “luxurious flowers.” He is left to struggle with the “gigantic tyranny” of slavery and to figure out how to defeat the oppressor. His entry provides a glimpse of his life outside his public identity.
William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist known for doing work in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Garrison created the Liberator in 1831, an American abolitionist weekly newspaper that preached the importance of immediate emancipation in the United States. His entry “The Abolition Cause” is the longest piece in the Cassey album. This original piece praises the efforts of those fighting to abolish slavery while honoring those for their personal sacrifices to the abolition movement. It is unclear if this piece was intended to applaud Cassey’s efforts or intended to persuade others to join the movement.
Lastly, Robert Purvis was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, established in Philadelphia, and the Library Company of Colored People, as well as a president of the Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society and a vice-president of the Woman’s Suffrage Society. He contributed “Friendship,” an original poem that advocates human emotion and intuition over intellectual reason. He explains that the world would be all “void and chaos,” if it wasn’t for the tender embraces of friendship.
Martina Dickerson’s friendship album focuses more on love, friendship, and womanhood and less about abolition and slavery. This could be due to the age difference and/or the stage of her life at the time of contributions to her album. Her album is also filled with several colorful watercolor drawings, some accompanied by a poem. One entry, entitled “Love” by an unknown individual, is a poem that expresses the bond of love shared between African American friends in the 19th century. No matter where or when, love was unconditional and had no boundaries for many African Americans at the time. The poem dated Philadelphia, Nov. 5th 1841 reads, “Love : Young Love is knocking at your heart;– Open the lattice! Let him in! And blush not thus-nor sigh and start! Love is not shame nor grief nor sin. Love is an angel in disguise! Sent with a band of brilliant flowers, to find the soul that, exiled sighs and lead it home to Edens bowers. Yield to the chain that heavenward woes; Go! linked with love in bonds so sweet! His wings will shower their rainbow hues, his wreaths its fragrance round your feet.”
Later in the album, and sharing this theme of unconditional love and friendship, is an entry that incorporates a vibrantly colorful flower drawing and a poem by A.H.H. “A mark of friendships pleasing power, in this small trifle see and sometimes in a lonely hour, view it and think of me.” The poem focuses on friendship and remembrance and encourages Martina Dickerson to view it when she is lonely. As discussed, Sarah Mapps Douglass is one contributor seen throughout the Cassey and Dickerson albums. In addition to water color drawings, Douglass left poems as well. As mentioned, she taught Martina and Mary Anne Dickerson as a free African American teacher in Philadelphia. In Martina Dickerson’s album she wrote, “To Martina. Thou hast youth, health, talents! So use these precious gifts that when the Great Householder calls for an account of thy stewardship thou mayest return him his own with usury. S.M.D 11.3.43.” She wrote this as a reminder of the importance of formal education as a social responsibility of the Black community.
Mary Virginia Wood Forten’s album is very similar to that of Cassey and Dickerson in that the subject matter of her contributions relate to abolition, love and friendship. Her entries provide one with a glimpse of her life and showcases the close-knit community of the Forten family. It has several contributions from her husband and his siblings Mary Isabella, Margaretta, and James Forten, Jr.
One of the powerful poems transcribed in Mary Wood Forten’s album is "Difference of Colour" written by Lydia Huntley Sigourney. Sigourney was a feminist and religious author who provided middle class American women and children with resources to gain and adapt to social mobility and social norms within their society. She provided them with poems and other nonfictional literature that uplifted them and allowed them to express themselves while giving them the power to fight for what was right. As a brief editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Sigourney often wrote pieces against slavery. She believed that African Americans deserved full protection under the law and equal education and professional opportunities as everyone else. "Difference of Colour" is a religious anti-slavery piece that discusses God’s creation of man’s skin tone. The poem describes the complexion of a Hindoo child compared to herself. Despite her fairer skin, she believes she should not be respected more than someone “with a cheek of olive.” “Not by the tinted cheek that fades away so fast, but by the color of the soul, we shall be judg’d at last.” She ends it by stating that only God can judge and it will be for their soul, and not their complexion. This poem was widely disseminated and was printed in the Paryley’s Magazine and The Liberator in 1834.
Prior to Mary Virginia Wood and Robert Forten’s marriage, Robert Forten contributed a few original entries in her album where he expresses his emotional feelings toward her and her characteristic traits. Each entry shows the respect he had for her and that he valued their friendship long before their marriage. One entry states, “If in your album I should write my name. Would you consent to let it there remain? Among your friends forever let it rest. And let kind friendship live within your breast. While life remains I’ll always be your friend. Live happy while you live and happiness extends, and by these lines perchance you think on me. I am your friend. And always wish to be.” He concludes her album with an original poem where he describes Wood Forten. In his eyes, she had a pure mind, beautiful inside and out, never made promises she couldn’t keep, and was simply a kind soul.
Ready to explore? Check out digitized materials related to this exhibit in In Her Own Right: the Amy Matilda Cassey, Mary Anne Dickerson, and Martina Dickerson albums held at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Mary Virginia Wood Forten album at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University Libraries.