The Faces of Freedom

Forensic artist puts images to 200-year-old descriptions
“We want to return their voices and faces,” explains Chris Haley, director of the Archives’ Study of the Legacy of Slavery, left with composite of Lot Bell. Helping with that effort is forensic artist Lt. Donald C. Stahl (below) of the Charles County police: “Given the description, I first try to form a picture of the face in my mind.” On his computer screen is the composite he created of Samuel Curtis.
       Lot Bell, who became a free woman in 1816, survived through two centuries of history in a few words written by the man who had claimed her ownership. Granting Lot her freedom in his last will and testament, ­Silbey Bell described her of “pretty dark complexion, long face and high cheek bones … a very remarkable scar on her head on the left side thereof which resembles a mulberry very much.” On the 30-year-old woman’s Certificate of Freedom, those words were the equivalent of her passport photo.
       Now, thanks to the Maryland State Archives’ Faces of Freedom, this forgotten figure in Maryland history — with thousands to follow — is faceless no more.
      “We want to recognize the humanity of all people gripped by the drama of slavery in Maryland,” explains Chris Haley, director of the Archives’ Study of the Legacy of Slavery. “We want to return their voices and faces to them.”
       Haley knows the history of slavery well. Nephew of Roots author Alex Haley, Chris Haley also descends from Kunta Kinte, a slave who arrived at Annapolis’ docks on the slave ship The Lord Ligonier and whose story became famous in the older Haley’s writing and 1977 television miniseries.
       “Our aim is to bring life to the identities of these unknown individuals by using Certificates of Freedom, Manumissions and runaway slave ads,” Haley explains. “We then take it to the next level by using a professional forensic artist, whose expertise is putting a face to words.
       Descriptions from Certificates of Freedom are more detailed than wording from the other documents. The certificate and the description on it were the only evidence formerly enslaved persons had to prove who they were and to vouch for their freedom. Without good descriptions of all of the prominent facial features, a free or freed man or woman was more likely to be arrested and enslaved again.
 
Breathing Life into Words
       Lt. Donald C. Stahl of the criminal investigations division of the Charles County Sheriff’s office was the forensic artist Haley chose to reconstruct the Faces of Freedom. 
        From a Certificate of Freedom, Stahl explains, “I first pull out all of the details.” Lot Bell’s description also noted that she was “rather straight and well made, narrow between her temples, rather flat nose, with a full mouth and thick lips.”
      It’s a process, Stahl explains.
      “Given the description, I first try to form a picture of the face in my mind.”
       As well as Lot Bell, Stahl has reconstructed Samuel Curtis, a 23-year-old freed in 1838. He depicted Curtis with an open mouth because “the certificate stated that ‘his lips are thick and when he laughs shows his upper teeth.’ So I felt that was a distinguishing characteristic.” 
       Then the forensic artist seeks a photographic reference “to provide finer details like lighting and shading.”
      The next step is “research on the era to include a period feel.” Stahl tries to get a feel of what life would have been like back then to avoid making people who lived two centuries ago appear in the image of today.
      There is, however, a degree of artistic license “When we started the project,” Stahl says, “Chris and I agreed there had to be. While a good amount of information is included in the certificate of freedom, every single feature is not described in detail, so I have to develop something to complete the face.”
       The images we now see of Lot Bell and Samuel Curtis are, Stahl says, each a “true composite image made up of several pieces. It’s what we do in law enforcement to take a description and come up with a semblance.”
       Stahl’s participation in the project is a labor of love. Because it’s completed in his spare time, a facial reproduction can take anywhere from a few days to several months.
      “This is a very worthwhile project to be involved in,” he says. “I’m so used to drawing bad guys that it’s refreshing to do it for something good.”
 
Chronicling the Trail of Freedom
       In 2001, the Maryland Archives began organized research on the unsung heroes who fought against enslavement and aided escapes to freedom. Beyond the familiar names Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were thousands of other unknowns who risked imprisonment to help. Begun with three volunteers, that project, beneath the Underground Railway, gained funding from the National Park Service Network to Freedom Program. It has since spun off the Legacy of Slavery and Faces of Freedom projects.
      Haley spreads his arms in celebration as he walks to the display case holding the reproduction of Lot Bell and a copy of her original Certificate of Freedom. Having learned his ancestry through his uncle’s research and writing, he’s made it a mission to help others exploring family history.
      “Anyone can find their own roots if they dig deeply enough,” he says. “It’s all recorded just waiting to be discovered. All it takes is time and perseverance.”