By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A newly found photograph of a young Harriet Tubman is now on display at the Smithsonian, The New York Times reported. Restored by conservators at the Library of Congress, the previously unknown picture can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Tubman became a legendary abolitionist during the slave trade in America.
Harriet Tubman, who frequently helped slaves escape to free territories like Canada and Mexico via the Underground Railroad, became more and more well-known as an abolitionist the longer her journey continued. Therefore, she was photographed most often in the later stages of her life. Tubman, a famous public figure who fought vigilantly against the American slave industry, is featured in this rare photograph as a vibrant woman in an elaborate dress, inviting a closer look at what makes the image so special and how she found her place in the history books.
Harriet Tubman Before Emancipation
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in the 1820s in Maryland. Her birth name was Araminta Ross and she remained in captivity until at least her late 20s. After a failed escape attempt in 1849, as documented by a slave owner offering a reward for her capture, she eventually escaped to freedom permanently in Philadelphia. “The city, with its large Quaker and free black population, was a center of abolitionist sentiment,” Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture, said.
Then began her legacy of helping runaway slaves escape from Maryland along the Underground Railroad. “Undeterred by law and physical danger, Tubman ventured into Maryland at least a dozen times in the 1850s; most historians believe she conducted 13 missions,” Dr. Kurin said. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as a cook, nurse, spy, and scout. “In 1863, she accompanied Union troops on gunboat raids on plantations along the Combahee River near Beaufort, South Carolina—raids that rescued more than 700 fleeing slaves,” Dr. Kurin said.
Some of the nicknames she earned included “The Conductor of the Underground Railroad” and “General Tubman.” She befriended Susan B. Anthony as well as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, and her abolition work was praised by Frederick Douglass.
Harriet Tubman Photo – Capturing a Rare Moment
Many things make the Smithsonian’s new photograph a treasure. First, is its uniqueness in time. Tubman was mostly photographed later in life and this new image is estimated to have been taken in the 1860s. It depicts the historic figure in her 40s, notably younger than most records of her.
Second, on a similar note, her manner in the photo is striking compared to other images of her. To quote The New York Times article, “Other surviving photographs of Tubman show her looking stern or pensive and, in her later years, frail and wan.” Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the museum in which the new photograph is displayed, is quoted in the article as saying it humanizes her and shows the vibrancy of her youth.
Third, photography was still a comparatively new technology when this picture was taken; cameras were far from commonplace. This fact is one of the reasons the image is only now being discovered after 140 years.
The restored image of Harriet Tubman now featured at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., offers a rare glimpse into the younger life of one of the American slave trade’s most prominent heroines. Her bravery and selflessness helped her endure one of the nation’s darkest times and this newly discovered photograph of her will help her legacy continue.
Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. He holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.