We all know the image:
Look closely. The image has become so ubiquitous that we usually forget to actually look.
Known as “Whipped Peter,” this self-emancipated slave made it into Federal lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in March 1863. Following a medical examination, he agreed to have his lacerated back photographed. Details of the image itself can be found at the Library of Congress; additional information can be found at the National Archives.
The image was widely circulated throughout the North that spring and summer, making it one of the most famous—and influential—photos of its time. The image did much to strengthen Abolitionist sentiment. According to a caption on the back:
Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture. Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The story of “Whipped Peter” has been conflated with the story of another self-emancipated slave, Gordon, because a woodcut made from the photo appeared in a July 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly along with an account of Gordon’s experience. The account and the photo were presented as being the same person, although some evidence suggests otherwise.
The image is about to get new life thanks to director Antoine Fuqua, screenwriter William Collage, and actor Will Smith. Emancipation, a dramatized version of “Whipped Peter’s” life, with Smith as Peter, will show in select theaters this weekend and begin streaming on Apple TV+ on December 9.