The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries, it has been worn by women in different African countries and regions, in different forms, to reflect both communal and personal identities – which clan or tribe they belonged to, whether they were married, widowed, young or old, for example. This cotton kerchief, or headwrap, belonged to Nancy Burns (1800 – 1849). Born in Albany, New York, the daughter of slaves, she would eventually find work as a house servant and was painted in a portrait wearing the item in the 1840s. It represents a long history of cultural identity associated with women of African origin – particularly African-American women – that is still very much alive today.
In the late 1700s, the western part (St. Domingue) of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola was under French colonial rule. It had long been a major centre of sugar production on plantations using enslaved African labour. In 1791, Toussaint Louverture led the first – and only – successful uprising of slaves, in St Domingue. After a series of bloody conflicts and traumas with European colonial powers, St Domingue was renamed Haïti and became the first independent Black republic in 1804. These events became known as the Haitian revolution and played an important role in the decline of the Transatlantic slave trade. This lithograph depicts the Battle of Vertières in 1803, the final engagement between Haiti’s revolutionaries and Napoleon’s French forces.
Roll Jordon Roll is a spiritual, sung by enslaved Africans working on plantations in the Americas in the 1800s in resistance to their enslavement and cruel treatment.