Augustus Washington, the son of a South Asian immigrant and a former Virginia slave, matriculated at Dartmouth in 1843 as its only black student. He quickly found himself burdened with accumulating debt and turned to photography to help pay his tuition bills. Perhaps weary from dealing with the pro-slavery attitude of College President Nathan Lord, Washington left Dartmouth at the end of his freshmen year.
Within three years of declaring in an 1851 op-ed in The New York Daily Tribune that Liberia was the last hope for black Americans in search of freedom, Washington had raised enough funds—by aggressively soliciting new clients to sit for portraits—to move with his wife and their two small children across the Atlantic. They were settled in Monrovia by December of 1853, and Washington wasted no time establishing himself as Liberia’s foremost photographer.
His clients ranged from public figures such as abolitionist John Brown and poet Lydia Sigourney to citizens of modest means. Liberian subjects included the country’s senate chaplain, Rev. Philip Coker and the senate sergeant at arms, Chancy Brown.
Photos courtesy National Portrait Gallery