Last March, a rare photo of legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman was unearthed and sold at auction for $161,000 to “an American institution.” Now, we know who acquired the extraordinary image.
The Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture bought the picture of Tubman, which was found in an album that included several other photos of 19th century abolitionists. Also in the lot of 48 images is the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first Black man elected to Congress.
In the portrait, Tubman is estimated to be in her mid-40s, much younger than the images of the icon that have circulated for years. According to NMAAHC founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III, the image shows Tubman in a new light.
“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail,” Bunch said in a statement. “This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist. And that’s a good thing.”
Born into slavery in 1820, Tubman worked as spy for the Union Army and was dubbed the conductor of the Underground Railroad, which helped enslaved Black Americans gain their freedom. In 2016, the Treasury Department announced her image would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
The photo album housing Tubman’s portrait belonged to Emily Howland, a Quaker educator and abolitionist who taught African-Americans during the Civil War era. Helena Zinkham, acting director of Collections and Services at the Library of Congress, said the amazing find will make for a more holistic view of historical figures.
“Offering new faces for Harriet Tubman and John Menard is important for recognizing that the lives of historical figures are far more complex than a single surviving portrait can reveal,” Zinkham said. “Many community as well as individual stories can also be told from this album—about the lives of African-Americans, women and families in the mid-1800s as well as connections among educators and abolitionists.”
Images from the Howard album can be viewed online at the Library of Congress website.
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