Because of HerStory: A lost treasure

A newly discovered photograph of Harriet Tubman shows the face of a fierce and fearless American hero.

It’s like discovering a long-lost treasure. The recently discovered photograph of abolitionist Harriet Tubman depicts a younger woman in her 40s, poised and stylish in a dress with a fitted bodice and full gingham skirt. She sits with her arm draped across the back of the chair, staring past the camera with a fixed and determined gaze.

The only images of Tubman most of us know from schoolbooks and museum walls show a much older woman toward the end of her life. Old and frail, this Harriet Tubman looked as if she had lived every moment of a long life, but it took some imagination to imagine how this old lady accomplished all she did.

Older Tubman wrapped in shawl

Harriet Tubman in 1911. (Wikimedia Commons / Public domain)

However, this newly discovered photo doesn’t require any imagination at all to see the fierce and fearless woman who led hundreds of enslaved people to safety.

Taken in New York around 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, this Harriet is strong, young, and determined. A life lived with amazing bravery, determination, conviction and fierceness is reflected in her eyes. There is no doubt that you are looking at an American hero who led people through forests and swamps on the Underground Railroad and served as a spy for the Union. She still seems poised and ready, fresh from battle.

Tubman carte de visite

An autographed photo of Harriet Tubman taken when she was in her early 40s. (Courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Library of Congress.)

“I’ve been studying history for a long time and it never occurred to me that a new photograph [of Harriet Tubman] would come along. I’m in awe!” says Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail.”

The story of the lost treasure is just as exciting as the photograph itself. Tubman’s photograph is the last page of an album that belonged to Emily Howland (1827-1929). Howland was a Quaker school teacher at Camp Todd, the Freedman’s school in Arlington, Virginia. The album was given to her as a gift and contains 49 images. Most of the images are cartes-de-visite, photographs on affordable 2 x 4 inch cards that were easy to share with friends and family and could serve as introductory “visiting cards.” Abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass once said that, unlike painted portraits, photographs were “democratic art.” Howland’s album also includes the more well-known photograph of an older Tubman, as well as images of Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass, a leader of anti-slavery forces in the Senate during the Civil War); woman’s activist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; Revolution-era organizer Samuel Ely; writer and clergyman William Henry Channing; Col. C.W. Folsom, Charles Dickens and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to the U.S. Congress.

Old photo album with Tubman carte de visite

The album owned by schoolteacher Emily Howland (1827 – 1929) containing a photograph of Harriet Tubman taken around 1868. (Courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Library of Congress)

Tubman standing in dark suit

This photograph of Harriet Tubman was found tucked into the back of the Howland album though it is too large to fit into the windowed pages of the album. (Courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture)

NMAAHC curator Rhea L. Combs says, “Emily Howland’s album not only gives us this amazing new photograph of Harriet Tubman, but it is also a snapshot of Emily’s ‘circle of friends’ and the people that she admired from that important time period. The new photograph of Harriet is the end photograph in a story of freedom and social justice. It is the punctuation.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress pooled their funds to jointly acquire the Howland album two years ago at auction. Since then, the Library of Congress has been working to preserve the album.

“Harriet Tubman was a changemaker and a trailblazer—a citizen who helped shape this country,” says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “This amazing album gives us a new view of her life, along with dozens of other abolitionists, educators, veterans and leader who took an active role in citizenship.”

The display of Howland’s album is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” The initiative is one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women.

Album display case at NMAAHC

The Howland Album display case in Heritage Hall, NMAAHC, featuring a previously unknown portrait of Harriett Tubman.


Posted: 4 April 2019
About the Author:

Amy Kehs began volunteering at the Smithsonian in 1993. She has been a Smithsonian volunteer, intern and employee and is currently a public affairs contractor, assisting units around the Smithsonian with special projects.