This undated photo showing of two slave children was found by collector Keya Morgan at a moving sale in North Carolina.

A 150 year-old photograph of two slave children — ragged, barefoot and sitting solemnly together on a barrel — has been discovered in an attic in North Carolina. Experts are calling the Civil War-era image extremely rare and an important piece from a dark time in America’s past.

The photograph was discovered at a moving sale in Charlotte in August by New York collector Keya Morgan, who paid a total of $50,000 for an album of family photos (including the above image) and a document detailing the sale of a slave. The accompanying bill of sale details the purchase of John, one of the boys, for $1,150 in 1854.

Art and photography historians are calling the photograph an extremely important and rare find because of the scarcity of photographs of slave children, and also because it portrays yet another aspect of the horrors of slavery in America.

“It’s a very difficult and poignant piece of American history,” said Will Stapp, a curator and photography historian at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.. “What you are looking at when you look at this photo are two boys who were victims of that history.”

Stapp and others believe the image was taken in the early 1860s by the photography studio of famed Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee portraitist Mathew Brady. Though Brady himself likely did not take the picture, experts believe it was snapped by his Timothy O’Sullivan, who is known for shooting Civil War photographs that depicted the terrors of war.

For now, Morgan says he will keep the photo in his private collection, though he has received offers from museums to purchase the image. But no matter where it ends up, Morgan says the photograph will always be a window into the lives of slavery’s victims.

“This kid was abused and mistreated and people forgot about him,” Morgan said. “He doesn’t even exist in history. And to know that there were a million children who were like him. I’ve never seen another photo like that that speaks so much for children.”


Could Keya Morgan’s rare find actually be quite a common photograph? Here are new details in the mystery of the slave photo.