"I think that picture humanizes her in a way that I would have never imagined."
There is an exciting new addition on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum unveiled a never-before-seen portrait of American icon Harriet Tubman as a younger woman, which was discovered in a photo album owned by fellow abolitionist Emily Howland.
According to the museum, the photo dates back to the late 1860s when Tubman is estimated to have been in her early 40s.
“All of us had only seen images of her at the end of her life. She seemed frail. She seemed bent over, and it was hard to reconcile the images of Moses (one of Tubman’s nicknames) leading people to freedom,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said to Smithsonian.
The portrait shows a youthful-looking Tubman with her black hair held back in a tight bun. She dons a long-sleeve button-down with accents of ruffles in the middle and a gingham pattern frock that drapes all the way to the floor, subsequently hiding her feet. Tubman’s expression is straight and hardened while her right arm is rested on the back of the chair on which she sits.
The portrait is powerful. Not only because it is an image of one of the most revered African-American activists in the country’s history, but also because the vintage photograph is the only known portrait of Tubman in her younger years.
“Just to see her younger is really great because we’re so used to seeing the older photos of her after she’s already made her way back and forth,” Deborah Brice, a living descendant of Harriett Tubman, told DCist. “She’s a young woman and that’s what I see in the photo: a young woman who still has that hope.”
Bunch added that “there’s a stylishness about her. And you would have never had me say to somebody ‘Harriet Tubman is stylish.'”
The Smithsonian museum partnered up with the Library of Congress to gather funds and acquire the photograph from Swann Auction Galleries of New York.
Bunch, whose expertise covers 19th Century History, explained that Tubman’s attire signified that of a middle-class black woman. Tubman successfully made a living working for the Union government as a spy and received a pension for her services. She also ran a small farm of her own and sometimes received donations from abolitionists who supported her work.
Tubman’s rediscovered portrait is one of 49 photographs that appear in a worn photo album that belonged to Emily Howland who was also an abolitionist. Howland was heavily active in education and the women’s suffrage movement and taught freed slaves to read at Camp Todd, located on the Arlington estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. She also taught African-American girls at a free school and eventually went on to launch her own school for freed slaves.
Howland’s involvement in social justice at the time may explain the rest of the contents in the photo album, which was a gift she had received from a friend. In addition to Tubman’s photograph, the photo book also contains portraits of other public figures in American politics.
Another incredible discovery from Howland’s photo album is a portrait of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to the U.S. Congress. In the yellowed image, Menard projects an air of sophistication with perfectly coiffed curls on the side of his head and a well-groomed mustache. It is the only known photograph of Menard to still exist.
“When we came across the picture of John Menard I was stunned…[Menard’s] opponent challenges the election, and so there was this debate about whether or not he should be seated in the House,” Bunch said.
“There is this amazing image of him speaking before the House of Representatives…But they decided that neither he nor his opponent should be in the House, so they basically kept the seat vacant. So, while he was the first elected he didn’t actually become a member of the House of Representatives.”
Other noteworthy figures in the album are William Johnson, a soldier with the U.S. Colored Troops; Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer casualty in the Civil War; and Denmark’s Princess Dagmar, who eventually became ruler of Russia. The album also contains photos of Howland’s family and friends, former students, fellow suffragists and abolitionists, and her other acquaintances.
“A picture like that does a couple of things,” Bunch continued. “It reminds people that someone like Harriet Tubman was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things…But I also think one of the real challenges of history is that sometimes we forget to humanize the people we talk about…and I think that picture humanizes her in a way that I would have never imagined.”
After achieving her own freedom, Tubman was known to have led an estimated 700 slaves to freedom as she repeatedly made her way back to the South to save more people, including her aging parents, along the Underground Railroad. By 1860, she had made the dangerous trip 19 times.
Tubman’s heroic acts of liberty rightfully earned her the nicknames “Moses” and “General Tubman.” Not only was she a freer of slaves and a Civil War spy, but she also served as a nurse and cook for the Union Forces. Tubman’s photograph and the rest of Howland’s album are on display at the Smithsonian museum’s entry hall, Heritage Hall. The album will eventually be relocated to the Slavery and Freedom exhibition that is currently on view.