Abolitionist Ball captured history in photos

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 16, 2016

CINCINNATI -- Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Frederick Douglass, Jenny Lind.

James Presley Ball — a free black man, a traveler, a politician, a family-focused entrepreneur and the owner of a classy gallery in downtown Cincinnati — photographed them all.

Ball (1825-1904), however, was far and away more than a photographer to the stars. He elevated American culture by recording the images of children, blacks and whites, the poor and the privileged — even the dead — at a time in American history when an increasingly dispersed, diverse and faster-paced population desired an inexpensive way to document friends, families and departed loved ones.

The only known image of James Presley Ball was taken in Seattle when he was in his 70s. Public domain

Daguerreotype photography was new technology when Ball set up his Cincinnati studio in 1849. Ball was one of about 30 daguerreotype photographers in Cincinnati in the mid-1800s, but he stood out as the most popular and likely the most affordable choice.

Not to be forgotten, as Ball was for many decades after his death, is the fact that he was an outspoken abolitionist who, in 1855, assembled a crew of African-American artists, which included Cincinnati landscape painter Robert Duncanson, to create a 2,500-square-yard panoramic mural on canvas of paneled imagery that conveyed the horrors of slavery.

What happened to the mural is a mystery, but a 56-page pamphlet with abolitionist Achilles Pugh’s descriptions of it survives under the title that matches the mural’s largess — “Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial of the United States, Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, & C.”

Ball first showed the mural to the people of Cincinnati at the Ohio Mechanics Institute over a 12-day period in March 1855. He charged 10-30 cents per viewer, but he held benefit showings for children, churches and families who could not afford that admission.

Boston also hosted a showing of the mammoth mural, after which its whereabouts went undocumented.

Also missing are the portraits Ball made of Queen Victoria and Dickens, the existence of which was reported in the London Times. And despite the thousands of exposures he made of others over a 50-year career, only one is known to exist of James Presley Ball.

Taken 30 years after Ball left Cincinnati when he was in his 70s, the daguerreotype image shows the profile of a light-skinned African-American man dressed in a fine suit and tie, sporting the kind of long, bushy beard that was in fashion for much of his life. He looks successful and much like the patriarch he was to his brother, with whom he worked in Cincinnati, and his children, with whom he worked and lived with until his 1904 death in Honolulu.

Born A Free Man

James Presley Ball was born to William and Susan Ball, who likely were free Virginians. He learned photography in White Sulphur Springs, in what is now West Virginia, from John B. Bailey, an African-American from Boston. At age 20, Ball opened a one-room daguerreotype studio in Cincinnati, but it didn’t succeed, so he took his fledgling career on the road around Ohio and to major cities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia, where he had a studio near the state Capitol.

Historians speculate Ball might have been drawn back to the Queen City in 1849 because it had a growing black artist community, a diverse population and fierce abolitionists such as Lyman Beecher, Calvin Stowe, Levi Coffin and the aforementioned Pugh.

Whatever his reason for settling in Cincinnati, Ball didn’t give up his family to do it. The 1850 census shows Ball, his parents and younger siblings, Thomas and Lizzie, living together in the Ninth Ward, which was northeast of Central Parkway (then the Miami-Erie Canal) in the Pendleton neighborhood.

Business quickly boomed for Ball, and within several years and after working from several locations, he settled into an expansive space at 28. W. Fourth St., which he named the “Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West.” He would eventually employ as many as nine people, among them his brother, his brother-in-law Alexander Thomas and Duncanson, who did touch-up work.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass had Ball & Thomas take his portrait while in Cincinnati for a speech in 1867. Cincinnati Museum Center

A Cincinnati neighbor and’s first 2016 Black History Month subject, Eliza Potter, described Ball’s gallery in her 1859 autobiography “A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life”:

“The photographer J.P. Ball, who owns a magnificent daguerrean gallery, has a reputation that is known in nearly every State of the Union, and he has displayed on the walls of his gallery several of the finest landscapes painted by the accomplished artist Robert Duncanson.”

Census records found on indicate that Ball married in about 1850. He and his wife, Virginia, a Mississippian, had four daughters and a son, but in the 1870 census, the names of Virginia and daughter Victoria were missing, suggesting they had died. Ball’s son, J.P. Ball Jr., who lived to be 71, was not recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau in either 1860 or 1870.

Ball exhibited his photographs throughout the 1850s at the Ohio Mechanics Institute. He opened a second gallery and partnered with his brother-in-law as Ball & Thomas. While in Europe for six months in 1856, he photographed Great Britain’s iconic queen. In England during that trip, he and Virginia had a child, the ill-fated and appropriately named Victoria.

In an article on the University of Cincinnati website (, art history associate professor Theresa Leininger-Miller wrote about Ball’s encounter with her highness: “The London Times reported that Queen Victoria was so charmed by the portrait that Ball took of her ‘that she removed one taken by the most eminent artist in London from her boudoir and hung the American artist’s in its place.’ ”

Ball photographed a number of well-known people back home, such as the family of Ulysses S. Grant. This “indicated the respect which prominent Cincinnatians held for Ball … whether out of sympathy for African-Americans generally, and/or because of Ball’s skill, location, impressive business, and affordability, all factors he frequently touted in local newspapers,” Leininger-Miller wrote in another article.

Second Career In The Far West

Ball’s successful career in Cincinnati ended after 15 years. “Unfortunate speculations” hurt the Ball & Thomas studio between 1865 and 1871, and the gallery’s assets were liquidated, according to a biography compiled by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. Ball left Cincinnati and again became an itinerant photographer at age 46. His route followed railroad lines through Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Minnesota, and for the longest period, Montana, where he lived during much of the 1890s.

His accomplishments included being hired to be the official photographer of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in Minneapolis. He also photographed dozens of business leaders, pioneers, nuns, Chinese laborers and the construction of the Montana Capitol building in Helena.

Somewhere along the way, Ball, who had written at least one politically charged anti-slavery pamphlet before, caught a bug for civic activities and politics. He founded Montana’s Afro-American Club, co-founded the St. James AME Church and ran for public office. He didn’t win, but in 1894, he was named a Montana delegate to the National Republican Convention.

The turn of the century found Ball moving from Bozeman, Montana, to Seattle, where his son, who was a lawyer, had opened Globe Studio in 1892 and Ball & Sons studio in 1897. According to the history library’s biography, Ball was civically active in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, during his short stay in the Pacific Northwest.

Ball suffered from rheumatism, and it had become crippling by 1902, so he sought relief in Honolulu, where one of his daughters lived. James Presley Ball died in Hawaii on May 4, 1904, at age 79. Reportedly, his cremains were returned to his surviving family in Cincinnati.

How To View More Of Ball’s Photographs

There are more than 400 photos attributed to Ball and/or Ball & Thomas at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. But it has closed its Union Terminal office for renovations.

Computer users can access 294 of Ball’s images, only eight of which are of African-Americans, at Visitors to the Cincinnati Museum Center will find a display that features Ball in its history museum's "Forming a New World" exhibit.

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