Artist Mary Burkett, left, describes for Maddie Tucker her drawing of a boy in a Union cap. The portrait is part of the exhibit “Beloved: Legacy of Slavery” on display at Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The children’s faces peered out of the picture frames at a world they would never see. Two wore caps, some had lace. A few had names, others did not. There were big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a shy smile.

They are so adorable it’s enough to make even the childless want to scoop them up and wrap them in a blanket of love. Most of those portrayed, however, lived and died under the oppression of slavery or were killed in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.

The dozen portraits in the exhibition “Beloved: Legacy of Slavery” are a combination of two series by Mary Burkett, a retired pediatric nurse from West Columbia whose family has been in South Carolina for “many, many generations,” she said. 

Originally slated for three years ago, the exhibit was rescheduled for March 11 by the Lowcountry Coalition Against Hate at Campbell Chapel AME Church. 

The program included a praise dance by local performer Richard Ford III, and a story and the 23rd Psalm recited by Gullah-Geechee storyteller Louise Cohen. Following the program, a reception was highlighted by the Hilton Head Orchestra String Quartet.

Burkett, who said she had never taken art classes, had the idea in 2017 about learning to draw. Set up with pad and pencil, she looked for something on the internet to inspire her. Hirsch Goldberg, a little 5-year-old boy born in Romania in 1939, was her first subject. 

“I found a picture of him, and it just absolutely leapt off the screen. It was breaking my heart, and I said I’m going to try to draw him,” she said. “I told you I’ve never had any art lessons, so you can imagine if you sat down and just sort of started drawing. In three or four hours, he just looked out of the paper at me, and I told my husband, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s a little boy in there!’ I just had absolutely no idea of how that happened.”

Hirsch was gassed at Auschwitz May 5, 1944. Burkett knows that and more about this child and most of the Holocaust children because “the Nazis were absolute maniacs about records.”  

After that unexpected beginning, Burkett began looking for more children who had died in the Holocaust, especially photos of them when they were at home with their parents. 

Edith Helena Bartels was born in Tilburg, Netherlands, in 1940. She was hidden separately from her parents for nearly two years. Discovered in August 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, and after a two-day ride in a cattle car with no one she knew, she was murdered upon arrival.

Edith was the first little girl that she drew, and when she began exhibiting her art, this little girl’s face was used on the brochure and poster. A couple of years later, Burkett received an email from a woman in the Netherlands.

“She said, ‘I’m the sister of Edith that you drew.’ It ended up that the parents had survived. After the war, they had a son and another daughter, and the son lives in Israel, and he happened to see an advertisement for the ‘Beloved,’ recognized his sister, and called the other sister in the Netherlands. He said ‘You’ve got to find this lady in America because she’s drawn our sister’.” 

They asked if they could possibly buy the portrait of their sister, to which Burkett said no, but she would send them copies. 

“In a sense, she’s back home with her family,” she said.

When she finally stopped at 27 portraits, she figured she was finished, but she wasn’t.

In November 2017, she attended a screening of “Beyond the Fields,” which was filmed in Charleston at Middleton Place.

“It used a lot of ground footage from the gardens and it was just stunningly beautiful. I was sitting there and what I kept thinking to myself is ‘who are the people? Where are the people?’ All that didn’t just create itself,” she said. “I felt like I had been struck by lightning. I knew absolutely in a moment that I was supposed to do a series of ‘Beloved’ about slavery.”

Neither Middleton Place nor the South Carolina Library had photos of enslaved children. Photography did not arrive in America until 1839, so by the 1850s only the wealthy could afford portraits. Burkett eventually found 14 photos. 

“They either appeared in a newspaper archive, or the child was standing behind the person who owned them in a portrait of that person,” Burkett said. 

She found a full-length photo of a little boy dressed up but barefoot.

“He has a Union army cap on, and he’s dressed in a very oversized, military uniform. It’s folded over twice already, and there’s a belt holding it on,” she said. “This is an example of how we occasionally have pictures of these kids, because some of them, especially (in) 1863, 1864, ended up at Union army camps, and they actually had a camera there. He was probably so proud of that cap.”

Another portrait was of a little girl born in Virginia, the daughter of the plantation owner and a slave. 

Her name was Fanny Virginia Cassiopeia Lawrence.

“She was found in 1863 by a Union Army nurse, who described her as being filthy and in rags, and her name was Fanny. She decided to adopt her and take her home with her to New York,” Burkett said. 

The nurse named her Virginia for the state, and Cassiopeia for the constellation that was in the sky. When she moved to New York, she was baptized in the church where the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe was the pastor. 

“The reason we have her little photo is because she was used in a lot of newspapers in the north for the Abolitionist cause,” Burkett said.

Courtney Peeples, who attended the program, was mesmerized by the portrait of another little girl, Cora.

“She looks at you, and it’s like an expression of many things in her mind. ‘What am I here for? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing for my life?’” Peeples said. “‘Is this actually something that God wants me to share, or is this something God wants me to become in my future use?’”

“Beloved: Legacy of Slavery” will be on display in the Chapel’s fellowship hall for viewing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays through April. No appointment is necessary. The church phone number is 843-757-3652.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.