Flora's Sihouette Being Prepared for Transport
One of the Historical Society's most prized accessions is its silhouette of Flora the slave girl. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only slave silhouette of this type still in existence.
"The silhouette is of a young woman known as Flora who was sold as a slave in 1796, 12 years after the state had voted for gradual manumission. According to a bill of sale dated 1796, Asa Benjamin, of Stratford, purchased a nineteen year old slave girl named Flora from Margaret Dwight of Milford for the sum of twenty-five pounds sterling. Accompanying the bill of sale was a silhouette, drawn on a 14x13-inch piece of cutpaper and colored with brown ink by an unknown, and probably untrained, artist. The silhouette was likely traced from a candle shadow and then filled in, and may have been sketched specifically for this transaction. According to the Benjamins' records, Flora died on August 31, 1815." (Foregoing from the PBS.org website entitled "Africans in America".
Photos by Sandy Rutkowski
Having your silhouette drawn was a very popular way of creating a portable, shareable keepsake for friends and family. Silhouettes could be mechanically reproduced and, in so doing, enlarged or reduced in size. However, in the slave trade in New England, silhouettes were used as a method of "inspecting" a potential slave purchase. To remove some of the "stain" of the slave trade, slaves could be bought and sold in New England on the basis of their appearance in a silhouette. For Flora, having her silhouette drawn was, likely, very traumatizing. First of all, she would have known she was about to be marketed for sale and torn from the people she knew and cared about. Secondly, Flora would have understood that her "worth" as a person was being judged on the basis of her silhouette's appearance. Lastly, Flora would have known that should she ever attempt to escape her enslavement, her silhouette would have been used to track her and return her to her owner.
Flora's silhouette has appeared in many places. Flora's silhouette was used in the making of PBS' "Africans in America." Her silhouette is the cover of Cambridge University Press' book "Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World" which was published in 2013. Her silhouette was displayed in the book "How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery Complicity" published in 2005. Her silhouette was also the cover of the Hartford Courant's September 29, 2002 Northeast Magazine and was described in the accompanying article "The State That Slavery Built". You may find Flora's silhouette in Lewis Knapp's "In Pursuit of Paradise" and the National Park Service Handbook "Underground Railroad." Flora's silhouette was exhibited in Washington, DC and Brooklyn in 1995. An image of the silhouette appeared at the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob in 2005. Additionally, Flora has been referenced in the Stratford Historical Society newsletter, "Update", in November 1968, November 1988, January 1991, March 1992, September 1994, May 1995, September 1995, May 1998, March 2003, January 2005, September 2005, and November 2007. The "Update" newsletter references may all be viewed on this website.
Flora's silhouette is being restored by the Smithsonian and will be on display at the Smithsonian beginning in May 2018. As we have more details on where Flora's silhouette will be displayed in Washington, we'll post those details.