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Recto: a photograph of a baby — chubby limbs not quite still for his portrait, gaze curious but unfocused — nestled in a fur rug atop a rattan chair. 

Verso: “Cecil Allen” scrawled in pencil. Beneath it, possibly written in a different hand: “Dead.”

Who was Cecil Allen, the baby in this portrait? His fate may lie in a blurry scan of a death certificate for Cecil E. Allen, 31 years old.1 I cannot make out his cause of death (I think the second word is “appendix”) but I can see that he was attended by a doctor between December 29th, 1936 and January 1st of the following year, when he passed away. The tragedy of that single word — “Dead” — is seemingly reflected in the short life and sudden passing of Cecil E. Allen. Born in Waco, Texas in 1905 and identified as Black by his death certificate, he could certainly be the Cecil Allen pictured in the cabinet card. But is he? And what are the stakes of getting it wrong?

Portrait of an infant, possibly Cecil Allen, cabinet card, c. 1880-1910s, UD Library: Black Portrait Photograph Collection (front).
Portrait of an infant, possibly Cecil Allen, cabinet card, c. 1880-1910s, UD Library: Black Portrait Photograph Collection (back).
Selection from the April 5, 1933 edition of the Tyler Morning Telegraph that mentions Cecil E. Allen and Alice Rabion’s intention to get married.

Looking over Cecil E. Allen’s death certificate, it is difficult to avoid feeling like a voyeur. What are the ethics of this type of work? Of delving into the lives of strangers? Surely Cecil Allen (or, rather, his parents) never could have imagined he would become the subject of historical research when he entered Jackson’s Art Studio in Waco, Texas for a portrait. Worse, looking at baby Cecil, I find myself thinking about the haunting inscription on the back of his portrait and the brief, grim trace of Cecil E. Allen’s life in his death certificate.

In “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman reflects on the immense challenges of telling the stories of people whose lives appear only briefly in the archives. For Cecil [E.] Allen, the archive seemingly serves as “a death sentence, a tomb.”2 But must it? I do not know exactly where Jackson’s Art Studio was located, as several photographers with the surname “Jackson” were operating in the area around 1905, but most Waco photography studios were located in the bustling Austin Avenue neighborhood. Furthermore, census records indicate that Cecil E. Allen had several brothers and sisters.3 Were they photographed as well, shepherded through the streets of Waco alongside their baby brother? If so, what became of their portraits?

The existence of these siblings suggests that Cecil may have had nieces and nephews as well. While I was unable to determine whether or not he had any children, I did discover that Cecil E. Allen was married to a woman named Alice at the time of his passing. Tyler Morning Telegraph, a local Texas newspaper, published an announcement of their engagement in 1933. I like to believe that whoever added the inscription on the back of the photograph — maybe a descendant? — cared about making the identity of Cecil Allen known to anyone who handled his portrait. Is there somebody out there looking for traces of their Great-Uncle or Grandfather Cecil today?

Most of what I have written here is speculation based on a single photograph, a few archival documents, and my best detective work. According to Hartman, historical practice “pledges to be faithful to the limits of facts, evidence, and archive” — for better or for worse.4 In the metadata I wrote for Portrait of an infant, possibly Cecil Allen, I chose to exclude the findings I have discussed here, knowing that I cannot be sure if the identity of the baby in the portrait and the man in the archive are the same. I did not want to mislead anyone looking for information about Cecil E. Allen. Still, I recognize that refusing to make these findings public does a disservice to anyone who might be looking for information about this person. What are the stakes of neglecting to speculate out of fear of getting it wrong?

Writing this blog post, I have two hopes. I hope that in speculating about the life of the baby in the portrait, I have done some small part to counteract the weight of that word, “Dead,” that unfortunately came to define Cecil’s life when his portrait was estranged from its caretakers and his family. My other hope is that this post might serve to bridge the void between Waco, Texas and Newark, Delaware in order to reunite this photograph with Cecil’s descendants.

For photographs of Austin Avenue and other images of historic Waco, see the Baylor University Texas Collection digitized on Flickr.


1 “Cecil E Allen in the Texas, U.S., Death Certificates, 1903-1982,” Ancestry, accessed December 4, 2023,

2 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 2.

3 “Cecil Allen in the 1920 United States Federal Census,” Ancestry, accessed December 5, 2023,

4 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 9.

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