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The Burns African American Collection focuses on working and middle class life and culture. It includes a wide spectrum of the African American experience from the institution of slavery through the Civil Rights era. The emphasis of the Collection is on vernacular photography, images produced in the Black community for the Black community. 


The Collection includes early works by African American daguerreotypists, James Presley Ball and Glenalvin Goodridge, and thousands of portraits from 1845 to 1970. It contains images of the institution of slavery, abolitionists, and the Civil War; occupations and agriculture, especially cotton; everyday life, churches, schools, organizations, home and night life; racism, the KKK, lynching, and vigilantism; crime, punishment, and prisons; military service; and civil rights. 


The Collection contains the full range of photographic formats, including daguerreotypes and ambrotypes (1840-1860), tintypes (1860-1895), cartes de visite (1858-1870), cabinet cards (1870-1900), large format silver-gelatin photographs (1870-1920), stereoviews (1860-1920), real photo postcards (1908-1940), snapshots (1890-present), and numerous photographic albums of family life, occupations, military experience, and industry.


Since 1978, The Burns Collection has been exhibiting photographs of the African American middle class in both solo and joint exhibitions, nationally and internationally. Since 1983, Dr. Burns has donated hundreds of early African American photographs to institutions such as The New Orleans Museum of Art, The Bronx Museum of the Arts and The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Photographs from the Collection have been utilized in numerous documentaries, television series, and feature films. Notable projects include, Shadow and Substance: African American Images from The Burns Archive, Photography and the American Civil War, Unchained Memories: Readings from Slave Narratives, Amend: The Fight for America, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, and Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.


The Collection includes numerous remarkable one-of-a-kind photographs. Many of the images are the only known existing documentation of these historical moments. Among these photographs: Woman with her Enslaved Girl, New Orleans, circa 1850; Ceremony Celebrating the End of Slavery in the French Empire, Martinique, May 4, 1848; Manuel Walker, Wounded Contraband, Harewood US Army Hospital, 1865; The First Black Vote, North Carolina, 1868; and Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor after winning Track Cycling World Championship, 1899

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