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Stephen F. Austin State librarian conceives runaway slave portrait exhibit

Stephen F. Austin State University

Today is Juneteenth, commemorating 150 years since emancipation in Texas. An exhibit at the Nacogdoches Railroad Depot brings to life the faces of 45 runaway slaves. The artwork is based on runaway slave newspaper ads in Louisiana and Texas from the mid-1800s. It’s part of the Texas Runaway Slave Project.

Stephen F. Austin State University special collections librarian Kyle Ainsworth compiled a database of 1,400 newspaper ads. These became the inspiration for a new exhibit “Portraits of Freedom.”

“I put a call out and emailed every art professor I could find in Louisiana and Texas. I told them that I have this idea. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had art students draw likenesses of runaway slaves based on newspaper advertisements I’ve been doing research on?” Ainsworth said.

Ainsworth recruited art students from SFA, Lamar and Texas Christian University to contribute portraits based on the runaway slave ads. He says the works are diverse. Students used everything from Sharpie pens to woodcut to make these portraits. Ainsworth admits this exhibit is small, but it literally puts a face on the research.

“There were 180,000 slaves in Texas in 1860. This is a really small representation of who those people were, but by looking at the advertisements and then looking at their portraits you might get a sense of who this person was or how they might have lived,” Ainsworth said. “There’s a timelessness to appreciating the history of that.”

“Portraits of Freedom,” a juried student art exhibit, is on display through Sept. 25 at the Nacogdoches Railroad Depot. Ainsworth hopes to make it into a traveling exhibit.

Chuck Smith brings more than 30 years' broadcast and media experience to Red River Radio. He began his career as a radio news reporter and transitioned to television journalism and newsmagazine production. Chuck studied mass communications at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and motion picture / television production at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also taught writing for television at York Technical College in Rock Hill, South Carolina and video / film production at Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport.
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