A Wonderful Harriet Tubman Discovery

The National Park Service opens its Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in just a few days, on March 11. This is where Tubman grew up in slavery, escaped, and returned numerous times to help family members and friends on the road to freedom. I am greatly looking forward to visiting.

I am also looking forward to the new $20 bill with the likeness of Tubman, but circulation of the bills is not expected until well into the 2020s. A few potential designs have surfaced of the bill with Tubman's head shot, but nothing confirmed that I know of.

Existing Images

Meanwhile, many people have this image in mind, taken in the mid-1870s, of Harriet Tubman.

  Tubman in the mid-1870s, from Library of Congress.

Tubman in the mid-1870s, from Library of Congress.

Or you may have seen this one, taken two years before her death in 1913.

  Harriet Tubman, 1911, from Wikipedia Commons

Harriet Tubman, 1911, from Wikipedia Commons

Tubman lived in Auburn, New York, a cherished member of the community given her service before and during the Civil War. Auburn was a center of 19th century reform. Notable area residents included William and Fanny Seward (he was Lincoln's secretary of state) and, in the nearby town of Sherwood, abolitionist and educator Emily Howland. 

Tubman's home and several other buildings still stand and are open to the public. As of earlier this year, the National Park Service formed a partnership with the site, which is owned by the AME Zion Church.

The Newly Discovered Find

But I bury the lede, because here is the news:  A newly found image of Tubman has surfaced, a photo of a graceful, lithe woman in her mid-40s, probably taken in the years right after the Civil War. 

Swann Galleries will auction off a photo album that belonged to Howland later this month. The album, which contains several dozen cartes de visite, includes the photo. It was in "private hands," but the auction house provided no further details on the current owner. 

  The "newly discovered" photo, circa 1865, to be auctioned by Swann Galleries at the end of March.

The "newly discovered" photo, circa 1865, to be auctioned by Swann Galleries at the end of March.

As you can see, someone, perhaps Howland, wrote Tubman's name across the beautiful skirt. This does not, of course, guarantee authenticity. But the Auburn Citizen interviewed one of Tubman's biographers, Kate Clifford Larson, about the photograph. In the article, Larson, who has seen many purported, but ultimately false Tubman photos over the years, confirmed her belief that the photo was taken in the mid-1860s in Auburn and is indeed Harriet Tubman.

This photograph shows a different side of the person who was famous-notorious during her time, fell into obscurity in the early 1900s, and is now venerated as an icon. She poses sideways, wearing a full, light-colored skirt, with unwrinkled skin and a well-coiffed hairstyle. Other photos, including those above, show her as much more careworn, solid, and/or older.

The Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn has launched a crowdfunding campaign to purchase the photograph, which, alas, will probably go for a high price at the scheduled auction. I just made a small contribution. But whether it ends up in Auburn or someplace else, I hope that it remains with an institution, such as a museum or library, that allows the public to see it.

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