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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Remembering the Enslaved: Delia -- A guest post by Tom Scarborough

This is an oil portrait that has been in my family since the 1840s. It is of an enslaved woman named Delia. 

She was the house servant to my great, great, great grandfather, William Bisland, at Mount Repose, the family's plantation near Natchez, MS. 

It was painted by James Reid Lambdin, a relative of the Bislands by marriage. Lambdin also painted the official portraits of presidents Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison. 

This painting hung in the library of my grandparents' house in Washington D.C. for several decades. I remember being entranced by it when I would visit them. It is currently on exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art, in Jackson, MS. 

I went to Jackson last week to see Delia for the first time in at least twenty years. It was strange seeing in a public space, this painting that was a part of my ancestors' history, and a poignant reminder of their implication in the system of American racial slavery. 

William Henry Harrison

Zachary Taylor

Having done my graduate work in the study of the plantation slave economy, I am fascinated by the historical nuances of this painting. 

My Natchez family was deeply involved in the slave economy, owning over 400 human beings spread over five plantations, from Natchez, to Terrebonne Parish, LA. 

I don't know if the family commissioned this painting; if so, it would have been very unusual as slaveowners did not typically commission portraits of their human property. Oil portraits of enslaved persons are exceedingly rare. If they did, however, it would speak to the bonds that sometimes did form between bondspersons and those who kept them in thrall. 

More likely, Lambdin painted Delia on his own initiative, and then gave the painting to his in-laws. 

I love her expression--strong, proud, unbroken. She is dressed in what were most likely her finest garments--for her this must have been an event of special meaning. My aunt and I have both tried to track down any evidence that might indicate what became of Delia, but documentary evidence is scant. What little I have gleaned indicates that she may have moved from Mount Repose across the river to New Providence Plantation, in Concordia Parish, another Bisland plantation. But no records have yet been found to shed light on her life during, or after the Civil War.

It was wonderful to once again see this woman who has been a part of our family for nearly 175 years, though not by her choice. I am delighted that she can now be viewed and appreciated by the public. I encourage all of my friends in Natchez and nearby to make the trip to the museum, perhaps in conjunction with a visit to the new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Tom Scarborough lives in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where he and his wife, Denise, own and operate the Nouvelle Candle Club, and parent a precious, precocious, politically savvy  cat named Andy.