Guide to the Photograph Collection
This collection consists of photographs of members of four related African American families, the Asbury, DeGrasse, Downing, and Howard families.
John Van Surley DeGrasse (1825-1868) was born in New York in June 1825, the youngest son of George DeGrasse and Maria Van Surley. At age 15, DeGrasse enrolled at the Oneida Institute in upstate New York, then traveled to France, where he attended college for two years. He returned to New York and continued his medical training under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel R. Childs. He received his medical degree as a member of Bowdoin College Medical School’s Class of 1849. After traveling around Europe working in hospitals, he established a medical practice in Boston, where in 1854 he became the first African American elected to membership in the Massachusetts Medical Society. DeGrasse married Cordelia L. Howard on 5 August 1852 in Boston. During the Civil War, he became the first African American medical officer in the U.S. Army, serving as an assistant surgeon for the 35th Regiment of U.S. Colored Infantry (the First Regiment, North Carolina Colored Volunteers). He and his wife had one daughter, Georgiana Cordelia DeGrasse, born 5 December 1855. He died in Boston on 25 November 1868.
Howard DeGrasse Asbury (1907-1978) was minister of St. Paul Methodist Church in Jamaica, New York and the great-grandson of John Van Surley DeGrasse. Interested in African American history, he actively collected information and manuscripts about his ancestors, who included members of the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, Gardner, and Asbury families. He frequently loaned materials to institutions (including the Brooklyn Public Library, New York Cultural Center, and Museum of Afro American History in Boston, Mass.) for exhibitions about African Americans. He was a member of the Negro History Associates.
This collection comprises portraits of Boston physician John Van Surley DeGrasse, his wife Cordelia L. Howard DeGrasse, and their daughter Georgiana Cordelia DeGrasse Asbury; and descendant Rev. Howard DeGrasse Asbury, among others. Also included is a photograph of a portrait painting of Rev. Isaiah George Howard and a carte de visite of Frederick Douglass. The collection also includes photographs of memorials to Isaiah George Howard and abolitionist George T. Downing, as well as photographs taken during exhibitions of family papers and artifacts. Photographers include James Wallace Black and John A. Heard of Boston, as well as John White Hurn of Philadelphia, Pa., among others. Includes cartes de visite and color photographs.
Portraits are arranged alphabetically by subject, followed by views and exhibit photographs.
Gift of Robert Downs, November 2012.
The collection was owned by Mrs. Shirley Asbury Downs and placed on deposit with the Museum of Afro American History, who in turn deposited the collection at the MHS in 1998. Mrs. Downs's son, Robert Downs, inherited the collection after Shirley's death and donated the collection to the MHS outright in November 2012.
Detailed Description of the Collection
Black and white photograph of Howard DeGrasse Asbury posing next to a portrait of Isaiah George DeGrasse (1813-1841).
Color photograph of Howard DeGrasse Asbury at the corner of Downing Street in Newport, R.I.
Polaroid photograph of a portrait of Isaiah George DeGrasse painted ca. 1838.
Carte de visite accompanied by a cut-slip autograph, "Yours truly Fredk Douglass."
Taken at the U.S. Custom House unveiling of a tablet "To an Unknown Hero."
DeGrasse-Howard photographs, Massachusetts Historical Society.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.