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Highlights Archives

Glimpses of African-American Life, 1865-1934

The Webb family in Madison, circa 1910 (WHI Image ID 86936)
WHI 86936

When Caroline Webb died in 1975, her family photo albums were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society. A gift like this would normally be unremarkable. But Webb's parents had been born as slaves in about 1840 and came north after the Civil War. Her family photographs provide rare documentation of three generations of African-American life in the Upper Midwest.

Upward Bound

The new gallery of Webb family photos features 39 images, out of approximately 210 photographs preserved among her papers. The earliest are tintypes dating to the late 1860s that probably show family or friends, some of the very few Society-owned tintypes that feature African Americans. Some 19th-century funeral memorial cards and studio portraits provide glimpses into Webb's family as they moved from Missouri to Iowa (where they lived from about 1875 to 1910) and later to Madison (circa 1910 to 1937). Her father worked at odd jobs and her mother as a laundress until their deaths in 1937.

Although Caroline Webb's parents started life as slaves, they watched some of their children and grandchildren rise into the professional middle class. Their grandson Andrew, for example, studied medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Caroline Webb's close friend, Henry Hugh Proctor Jr., became an attorney.

Documenting Madison's Small Black Community in the 1920s

Andrew Webb's snapshots of social life in Madison's tiny black community during the 1920s document the family's rising status. Although many of the people in the images are not identified, their demeanor and attire speak to their economic success and social aspirations.

Caroline Webb moved to Chicago in about 1930 but returned to Madison in 1961. She died June 13, 1975, at the age of 91, and is buried along with her parents and her son at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.

:: Posted March 5, 2012

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