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Harriet Hayden carte-de-visite photo albums showcase community, solidarity at Boston Athenaeum

Nearly 90 photos will be on display as part of ‘Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums’

"Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums" opens March 20 at the Boston Athenaeum. Shown here is a replica of one of Harriet Hayden's albums pieced together by researchers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Two carte-de-visite photo albums belonging to 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Hayden will be unveiled at the Boston Athenaeum Wednesday as part of its exhibition “Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums.”

The albums, made up of photographs that essentially acted as calling cards gifted to Hayden by passersby, piece together her part in the abolitionist movement in Boston and reveal her social and political network made up of influential politicians, abolitionists, activists, and suffragists. The names and faces in her albums demonstrate the role of Black women in this movement and show, in many cases, a family-based effort to reject slavery, according to Makeda Best, co-curator of the exhibition.


“In her albums, you see mostly African American women and girls — and it tells you that often [abolition] was something that families worked on together, and that the movement was about various forms of freedom for Black people,” Best said.

Hayden, and her husband, Lewis Hayden, who was elected to one term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1873, both self-emancipated from slavery in Kentucky in 1844. They moved to 66 Phillips St. on Beacon Hill, where they aided hundreds of enslaved people in their journey to freedom made illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Hayden received the two carte-de-visite photo albums in the early 1860s as gifts from Boston-based anti-slavery activists Robert Morris and Samuel Birmingham. The albums contain 87 portrait photographs taken by various photographers across the globe. Many of the sitters in the photographs were later identified by a subsequent owner of the albums, providing “rare evidence” associating names with faces, according to curators of the exhibit.

“There are everyday people in these albums who were important in the movements, and they’re not the big names, but they played a role,” said Best. “To be able to see images of those people and discover that they were connected is really special.”


An introductory panel to "Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums," which opens March 20 at the Boston Athenaeum.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The two known existing photographs of Harriet Hayden are on loan to the Athenaeum from the Smithsonian Institution and from a private collection.

One photograph of Harriet and another of Lewis, also on loan, greet visitors when they enter the exhibition. Further in, maps, historical legal documents related to the Fugitive Slave Act, artifacts of slavery, and Hayden’s photographs are laid out to contextualize Boston’s role in the history of the anti-slavery movement.

According to John Buchtel, head of special collections at the Athenaeum, the Haydens operated one of the most active Underground Railroad sites in the Northeast. He estimates a fourth of all freedom seekers who came through Boston stopped at their Beacon Hill home.

“The albums are, in a lot of ways, a document that provides evidence for who Harriet’s community was, and also are a document that provides evidence for their fellow travelers in the anti-slavery movement,” said Buchtel. “It gives us an incredible visual record of all these different people who were collaborating together.”

The way the subjects in each portrait are portrayed is “rare,” according to Best, who noted the sitters’ clothing, positioning, and facial expressions point to the connections among the larger community. Many individuals were not based in Boston and would gift Harriet their own cartes-de-visite when they passed through town.

“They’re choosing how they’re going to be portrayed,” said Buchtel. “They’re choosing the clothes they’re going to wear, which photographer they’re going to sit for, and they’re portraying themselves with dignity and sometimes looking directly into the camera. In the 1860s, an African American person wasn’t expected to look that boldly at people.”


Docents and staff receive training before the March 20 opening of “Framing Freedom: The Harriet Hayden Albums” at the Boston Athenaeum.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Athenaeum is located half a mile from the Haydens’ house and is on the outskirts of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. Best hopes the proximity of the home encourages exhibit visitors to venture deeper into Beacon Hill and discover the buildings that aided in the emancipation of hundreds of enslaved people.

“Beacon Hill was the destination for freedom seekers; the Haydens settled there for a reason because it was known as a space for African Americans and Black people,” she said.

The timing of the exhibition, which runs from Wednesday through June 22, was the subject of some discussion among the curators, as it follows Black History Month in February and comes amid Women’s History Month in March. “Black history, like women’s history, transcends any one month,” said Buchtel.

“It is about the moment of Juneteenth, it is about post-Juneteenth, and beyond, and what these activists were working toward — which was more than just abolition, but freedom and equality,” Best said. “I liked that it straddled these two moments, but in particular, that it looks toward June and this particularly significant day in African American history.”

Adri Pray can be reached at adri.pray@globe.com. Follow her @adriprayy.