Private Thomas Gee sits casually, his slight smile exuding confidence. Private George Spratley sits stiffly in the same studio, his hands crossed, his demeanor solemn. Private Herbert Byrd is dashing in goggles, affecting continental nonchalance at a café table before a canvas backdrop. Private Harvey Braxton presents his rifle, vigilantly guarding a stage set adorned with forty-eight stars and thirteen stripes.
These uniformed young men are ready for war—brave, loyal, and prepared, though perhaps either a bit reserved or cocksure. Soldiers knew that these portraits, made outdoors or in makeshift studios, would be mementos for sweethearts, families, and others proud of their service and anxious for their safety. Yet the intimacy of such pocket-sized original prints belies a larger context: in an era replete with stereotypical imagery, here were African Americans presented as they wanted themselves seen.
Over time, the ubiquity of cameras has changed how we represent ourselves and how we see one another. Yet, a century ago, most photographic portraits were limited to the output of professional studios. World War I recruitment efforts aimed at African Americans brought new soldiers into the armed services, providing them with opportunities to travel, to work, and, in many cases for the first time, to face cameras—all outside the restrictions of the Jim Crow South. Like other soldiers heading to the war, these men created keepsakes against the promise of return. Unlike their white counterparts, however, these soldiers also created a legacy of racial self-representation.
The camera was the central instrument by which blacks could disprove representations of us created by white folks. For black folks, the camera provided a means to document a reality that could, if necessary, be packed, stored, and moved from place to place. It was documentation that could be shared, passed around. And, ultimately, these images, the worlds they recorded, could be hidden, to be discovered at another time.
—bell hooks, Cultural Critic
True Sons of Freedom explores the worlds of twenty-four Virginians who fought overseas to defend freedoms they were denied at home. In the words of one African American veteran from Richmond, “It was my duty to defend the standards of My country wher[e] my Freedom is sought.”