Rare Photos of Harriet Tubman Now on Display in Online Album

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (Library of Congress)

After months of careful conservation and meticulous research, a photo album originally belonging to Quaker abolitionist Emily Howland that features rare portraits of a young Harriet Tubman is now online.

The joint purchase between the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) features images of Tubman in her 40s — unusual for the famous Underground Railroad abolitionist, who was most often depicted in her old age.

Harriet Tubman
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, taken by Benjamin F. Powelson in 1868 or 1869, when Tubman would have been in her mid-40s

​The 48-photo album contains much more information relevant to the abolitionist movement and African-American history, such as photographs of John Willis Menard, the first African American elected to U.S. Congress in 1868, and portraits of abolitionists, suffragists, teachers and statesmen.

Among the exceptional collection of photographs is the first image of Charles Sumner, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a leader in the fight for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for African Americans.

His name graces the old school building in northwest D.C., where it was among the first structures where African Americans were educated. The brick building, which had fallen into disrepair, was rebuilt and now houses a museum and archives.

​The album also includes inscribed photographs of some of Howland’s students, who went on to become the first African-American teachers. All but three of the people included in the album have been identified.

“I enjoyed working closely with each picture, researching the people depicted and the album’s original owner Emily Howland.,” said Mary Mundy, cataloguer in the Library of Congress’ prints and photographs division. “I learned that Howland was a Quaker, abolitionist and teacher. And she lived only about 15 miles from Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York. We know from Howland’s diaries and other documents that the two women were friends and that Tubman visited Howland’s home on several occasions.”

The entire album has been digitized for viewing by the public, who can leaf through the images and notes contained therein.

​The two institutions pooled funds in 2017 to acquire the album. Before it could be digitized or exhibited, the leather cover had to be reattached and the photographs cleaned to ensure longevity.

During the cleaning, conservators removed the photos and found informational inscriptions on the backs of some photos which facilitated identifying the people and placing them into the historical narrative of Tubman and Howland’s lives.

“Now people in our nation’s capital and around the world can see these important figures from American history and learn more about their lives,” said Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.

The full album will go on physical display later this year at 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,” said Lonnie Bunch III, the museum’s founding director. “This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and full skirt with a fitted waist.

“Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than most people realize,” he added. “This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist.”

The album can be viewed in full at https://go.usa.gov/xnuBn.

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