Item No: #361046 [Portrait of Two Black Women in Los Angeles, 1888]. J. A. Bisbee.
[Portrait of Two Black Women in Los Angeles, 1888]
[Portrait of Two Black Women in Los Angeles, 1888]

Uncommon 19th Century Photograph of Black Angelinos

[Portrait of Two Black Women in Los Angeles, 1888]

Bisbee, J. A.

Notes: A cabinet card photograph of two young African American women wearing similar solid-color dresses with elaborate headpieces. One woman stands with her arm on a pedestal, the other is seated to her right. The photograph is captioned in a later hand, "Grandmother and Aunt Maggie 1888." The date seems correct as J. A. Bisbee was active as a photographer in Los Angeles in the late 1880s.

In the 1880s, there were only a few hundred African American families living in Los Angeles. A bit of research to identify a young Black woman in 1888 named Maggie turned up one interesting possibility. According to the 1880 census, the only Black woman named Margaret living in Los Angeles was the youngest daughter (born about 1874) of Joshua and Sarah Smart. "By 1870, Joshua Smart had become one of the wealthiest black men in the County of Los Angeles. The value of his estate was $1,450, making him... far wealthier than most of the other residents of Los Angeles"—Paul Robinson, "Race, Space, and the Evolution of Black Los Angeles" in Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities, NYU Press, 2010. The women in this image appear to be fairly prosperous, based on their clothes.

In the 1900 census, there are two Black women named Margaret living in Los Angeles, Margaret Smart and Margaret Buch. Buch was born in 1860 and apparently had a son in 1876, twelve years before this image was made. She would seem to be too old.

Of course, there could be other Margarets not recorded by the census and women nick-named Maggie who had another name. Working against the Margaret Smart possibility is the apparent ages of the women in the photograph. The younger-looking woman, who is standing in the photo, might plausibly be 14 like Margaret Smart was at the time the picture was taken. Yet she seems to be identified as "grandmother" rather than Maggie. Maggie's sister, Leonora, however, was 24 in 1888.

In any case, 19th century photographs of African American residents of Los Angeles are very scarce.

Edition + Condition: A very good image, with light to medium toning and contrast. There is a bit of insect spotting near the top and a strip of adhesive (?) residue on the seated figure's sleeve.

Publication: Los Angeles: Bisbee, [1888].

Item No: #361046