Historical artwork will uncover the hidden lessons of history if we are willing to look and learn. As America begins to rewrite its history after years of whitewashing and placing Black people on the sidelines and rendering them invisible, now is the time to reinterpret the paintings of bygone eras. Historical paintings that included Black people - particularly Black children in scenes with white people - portray them as anonymous, invisible background characters without an identity or a voice. A reevaluation of history makes the Black children in these paintings the main story rather than a side note. We are left to guess who they are. Who are these children, and where are their parents?

For example, consider a 1719 painting of Elihu Yale, the British aristocrat and namesake of Yale University, which was presumably painted by John Verelst, a Dutch artist. Yale, who profited from the slave trade, as did his relatives in New Haven, Connecticut, is depicted with other wealthy white male family members in London. White children, likely Yale’s grandchildren, are playing in the background.

Standing next to the men is a Black boy, around 10 years old, wearing a metal collar around his neck. Although there is no evidence Yale owned slaves, someone - one of the other men - owned this child, who was likely stolen from his parents in West Africa or the West Indies as part of the slave trade. Including an enslaved African boy in this painting allowed Yale, a wealthy white man to display his high status. As the search for the identity of the Black boy continues, the painting shines the spotlight on Yale University’s ties to the slave trade, and is a reminder of the immense wealth that poured into London from the kidnap and sale of African people.

Another painting, this time from New Orleans in 1837, begs that we ask the name of the Black boy. Something looks off. The 15-year-old, an enslaved household servant named Bélizaire, property of the Frey family, stands with three white children. However, Bélizaire is well dressed and appears as if he has equal status with the white children, a peer. His skin tone and facial similarities to the other children suggest he may have been their half sibling. The Frey family had sold and bought back Bélizaire, and his image had been expunged after the Civil War, when White people rejected intimacy between the races, and subsequently restored.

Then there were the Dutch Masters paintings, in which Black servants were portrayed in 17th century paintings with the Dutch aristocracy. This was the golden age of Dutch slavery, when the Netherlands was one of the major transatlantic powers, and was in control of New York City, then known as New Amsterdam. At the time, Africans were brought to the Netherlands as gifts to the wealthy. One 1650s work from Jan Mijtens, “Willem van den Kerckhoven and His Family,” shows a Black page in the background handling a horse, his presence signifying the white man’s wealth.

Getting to the bottom of who these Black children were helps us understand the truth about history.

David A. Love, JD - Serves

BlackCommentator.com as Executive

Editor. He is a journalist, commentator,

human rights advocate, a Professor at

the Rutgers University School of

Communication and Information based in

Philadelphia, a contributor to Four

Hundred Souls: A Community History of

African America, 1619-2019, The

Washington Post, theGrio,

AtlantaBlackStar, The Progressive,

CNN.com, Morpheus, NewsWorks and

The Huffington Post. He also blogs at

davidalove.com. Contact Mr. Love and


Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share