I spend so much time looking forward, sometimes I need a reminder to look back, marvel, and appreciate how far we’ve come. I got a wonderful reminder from esteemed Caribbean-born author Nalo Hopkinson, who sent me a link to Yale’s online Beinecke archive of rare books and manuscripts. In the Randolph Linsly Simpson African American Collection there are “vivid pictures of black life and American racial attitudes from the 1850s to the 1940s.” Some are astounding, some are surprising, some are sad. All are worth seeing, absorbing, and appreciating.


This full length portrait of Zumigo; lady in very fancy dress and huge Afro, standing next to gigantic basket prop” was taken in 1880. WOW at her stunning hair! And her style is giving me inspiration – a ruffled skirt with a pair of flat boots might be in order this spring, for real.

This is titled “Sissaretta Jones, “the Black Patty” singer, entertainer, leader of a musical company.” The photograph is undated, but Sissieretta Jones lived from 1868 to 1933, and she was a popular opera singer who performed at the White House for Presidents Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, and Roosevelt – as well as the British Royal Family. Her life story is amazing.

This portrait of young black woman wearing a gingham dress and gold (tinted) jewelry is dated 1860. Unlike some vintage photos where even the woman’s face looks evocative of a previous era, I think this woman possesses a timeless beauty.

Love this portrait of a “woman with “Afro” hair dressing” from 1880. Please check out her outfit – not sure if it’s a top, or a dress. But the shoulder details are FLY and that’s the kind of thing I see fashionistas rocking today!

WOW at this cameo portrait of a lady wearing spectacles; hair dressing comes to a point; elaborate dark dress. Was that the hot style back in the day? That hair is statement making and I bet the quality and age of the cameo portrait doesn’t reveal any of its intricacy. Dated 1895.

There’s something radiant and lovely in this cameo portrait of a young lady with with elaborate lace dress front..

I wish there was more detail here. I’d love to know what products these women used on their hair and skin, what their lives were like…so much more. But for now all we have are these stunning photographs. I hope you love them as much as I do.



Erika says:
May 12, 2010, 12:39 pm
Gorgeous. :)
Melissa Danielle says:
May 12, 2010, 12:43 pm
Thank you for sharing these images. It's unfortunate that we don't see enough images like these of black women in the 19th century. Made my day.
Tester 70 says:
May 12, 2010, 12:46 pm
Portrait 4, don't know why this hair speaks to me but it is awesome. And all of them have flawless skin.
Lisa Sperling says:
May 12, 2010, 12:46 pm
Hair: The ultimate style accessory, then and now. What great photos.
PBG says:
May 12, 2010, 12:47 pm
Oh wow! I love history, black women and hair! This post is amazing, Bella. I am fascinated by the first lady's hair. A full afro at that time? I wonder if it was common in her part of the world back then. The lady in the 3rd pic looks as if she could step out of that picture and live in this time. All of these are incredible pics!
Love Is Dope says:
May 12, 2010, 12:52 pm
OMG! I love everything about this post. Let me find out one of these fly women is my great-great-great grandmother or something. LOL
Roslyn Holcomb says:
May 12, 2010, 12:53 pm
I downloaded a ton of pictures from the Schomburg Collection when I was working on my historical novel, Given. But I didn't see any with fabulous afros like this. Too awesome.
Margo says:
May 12, 2010, 12:57 pm
WOW. very cool pics!
Helix says:
May 12, 2010, 12:59 pm
Zumingo, was actually known as a "Circassian Beauty". These were women who traveled with the circus and side-shows. They were often european and were showcased as examples of racial purity. This gets really ironic and interesting the further you dive into it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circassian_beauties
Nicole says:
May 12, 2010, 1:09 pm
Thanks for a great post
Kasalina says:
May 12, 2010, 1:29 pm
That is really cool, thank you for posting these photos!
SoFrolushes says:
May 12, 2010, 1:33 pm
this was such a nice read. The pics are gorgeous.
LBell says:
May 12, 2010, 1:51 pm
There was a recent NP thread on so-called "Circassian women" pointing to this site: http://www.sideshowworld.com/BL-History-CircassianB.html Also, for great historical pictures in general...wait, didn't I get this from your blog? LOL...I need to stay off the Internet. :) Anyway, check this site out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackheritage/
Kelly says:
May 12, 2010, 2:07 pm
I absolutely love this post! It's awesome to look back at the beautiful and trend-setting sense of style Black women have always had.
MzPurp says:
May 12, 2010, 2:17 pm
Yes, they are beautiful! great post!
ashtastiic says:
May 12, 2010, 2:24 pm
That first image is a cessarian women, they had to have their hair washed in beer and teased to make it look like that. They were considered the "purest" europeans
Keebi says:
May 12, 2010, 2:34 pm
Oh my goodness Thank you for the link!! :) :) :) :) Love the first image with the sister rocking attitude in her pose and hair. I LOVE IT!!
bella says:
May 12, 2010, 2:56 pm
Helix and Ashtastiic - you really spread the knowledge today and I appreciate it! I found this link. More information about Cirassian beauties can be found there - the woman in the top photo was apparently a "self made freak" who would have toured with a circus or appeared at a sideshow or dime museum. Wow. I'm still amazed. So glad you're liking this post - I'll be sure to do more!
warrior11209 says:
May 12, 2010, 3:09 pm
Love the post , pics and additional info!
Skeeta says:
May 12, 2010, 4:49 pm
I rarely comment on here, although I'm a daily stalker. But I wanted you to know that this was an awesome awesome post. Thank you. ;o)
ebonys says:
May 12, 2010, 6:36 pm
This is an amazing collection. I found the male and family portraits fascinating although I got a lump in my throat seeing the photo tagged slave. Thanks for sharing.
Laquita says:
May 12, 2010, 8:31 pm
Wonderful post :o)
May 12, 2010, 11:21 pm
Mitnb says:
May 13, 2010, 11:04 am
Found your blog through jezebel, those pictures are amazing! great find!
Nia says:
May 13, 2010, 11:46 am
Thank you for this post. I love fashion and history! This is awesome!...My nephew is at Yale. I am going to encourage him to visit the library and see pictures first hand. Unfortantely,he finds only European features and hair beautiful. PRay for him. :)
Kimmoy says:
May 13, 2010, 3:03 pm
Absolutely amazing post! I love it, love it, love it! Keep 'em coming....My favorite is the 2nd pic -Sissieretta, is that a dress with a built-in corset? The detailed overlay with slit shoulders, her ring, the jewelry, just gorgeousness from the hair on down.
Goody says:
May 13, 2010, 3:12 pm
how fantastic is this! i love, love them all but the first one is major!
Ginnette Powell @caffeinehusky says:
May 13, 2010, 6:06 pm
Thanks so much for posting! I had no idea!
Purple says:
May 14, 2010, 1:11 am
I love that first photo. I aspire to that afro LOL.So sad that it was actually seen as freakish :(
mixiepixie says:
May 14, 2010, 6:20 am
How wonderful - thank you so much for this fantastic article! These pictures are so precious - and so educational. Who knew that afros were worn in Victorian times? Fantastic, thank you! xxx
designdiva says:
May 14, 2010, 9:58 am
love the story and the photos
Tiffany says:
May 14, 2010, 1:00 pm
Very lovely photos.
OnceUponaTime says:
May 14, 2010, 1:02 pm
Definitely gives a different meaning to the words "lace front". :) Thanks for this!
Marlena says:
May 14, 2010, 1:19 pm
Thanks for the suggestion to look up "circassian Beauty". Absolutely fascinating.
Denise says:
May 14, 2010, 2:54 pm
This is awesome Afrobella! Thanks for sharing:)
Nic M says:
May 16, 2010, 3:11 am
Great post. These are beautiful and thought-provoking. Sometimes it's just hair, sometimes it's a sideshow attraction.
Nic M says:
May 17, 2010, 11:17 pm
I just had to come back and share. Today I was in the library searching memors and ran across a humorous memoir called I'm Down. You have to check out the front cover! It's very fitting here in this discussion.
Jackie says:
May 18, 2010, 7:36 am
Very nice post. How inspirational! Thanks for sharing!
Myne Whitman says:
May 18, 2010, 9:24 pm
These are great pics!
Clara says:
May 19, 2010, 9:41 am
Intrigued by the “Circassian Beauty” references. Must research this.
UmmAmirah says:
May 19, 2010, 11:24 am
Great post. My family has late 19th century pictures of our matriarch and patriarch. They are great to see. Reminds me of a simpler time. Even thought black was beautiful it wasn't fully recognized.
Toy says:
May 19, 2010, 10:17 pm
This reminds me of the big leather photo album sitting on my grandmother's coffee table. She has so many old photos from when her mother and grandmother were alive. I really enjoyed seeing all of the hairstyles.
Jessica says:
May 20, 2010, 9:54 am
I love all the pictures. Looking at older pictures seems to bring me back in time.
Melissa says:
June 25, 2010, 8:56 am
I love the third portrait. I feel like we look alike. Just classy and beautiful! Love them all!
jasminethejigsaw says:
August 11, 2010, 2:19 pm
omg...this touches my hair and my heart. :)
Susie says:
August 13, 2010, 9:35 am
Worn with pride!
Susie says:
August 13, 2010, 9:39 am
I'm with you on that one. I didn't appreciate those styles when I was younger. I do now.
Evelyn Davis says:
October 14, 2010, 5:44 pm
Who would have thought! Thanks.
Alorye says:
August 16, 2011, 11:39 am
I hope my hair grows as long as the first lady's picture sooooon.
mimi says:
March 2, 2012, 4:47 pm
Afrobella, you should be careful posting these pictures because a lot of them where doctored by the photography studios they where taken at by the photogrophers. They would chop off the woman's hair style be it corn rows or hair pinned up and curled in a style of the day and stick the Afro in its place. This was done to photograph of my great great grandmother that was taken at fancy studio in about 1890 and picture of my great grandmother as a little girl taken about 1914. The pictures of the women with the natural hair look just like my families doctored pictures. This was a common practice of that time. Something you should know from a historian.
Talma says:
April 16, 2012, 9:04 am
WOW! Great post! Thank you to Mimi for talking about the doctored photos of that time. I had no idea that that was common practice but was surprised to see the 4th photo as I know that type of hair style wasn't commonplace during that time. Now it makes sense! Especially seeing that there is a triangular dark but still transparent "halo" going from the sides of the afro to the round curved shape of her head. The hair style is also out of place with her style of dress. Also, with the hairstyle in the picture just below that, the point on top of her head isn't her hair. That's a hair comb or hair pin securing the upswept hair. I collect them and am always on the look out for those at antique shows. Dang it...now I want to go shopping for hair toys! lol
Michelle F. says:
February 9, 2014, 8:20 am
I liked all the photos my favourite being the first one, and not so much the hair but the boots! I LOVE BOOTS!!!
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