Young Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is having a moment. The renowned Civil War–era former slave who risked her life to bring hundreds of enslaved African Americans to freedom is in the news again. You might say her image is getting a makeover, as a rarely seen photograph of a younger Tubman has been unveiled at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum obtained the photograph (above), taken around 1868, from a photo album belonging to abolitionist Emily Howland. The collection contains dozens of photos of educators, abolitionists, and others, including John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as Lydia Maria Child and Senator Charles Sumner.

In the portrait, Tubman “stares defiantly into the camera. Her eyes are clear, piercing and focused,” says award-winning correspondent Allison Keyes. “It is her expression—full of her strength, power and suffering—that stops viewers in their tracks.” Historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the NMAAHC, notes her “youthful exuberance” and “stylishness.” The image is indeed stunning when compared to familiar portraits of Tubman near the end of her life. This is how she should be remembered.

The Harriet Tubman photograph is now part of an NMAAHC exhibition that “explores the complex story of slavery and freedom” and its impact on American political, economic, and cultural life. Historical artifacts, such as Nat Turner’s Bible or tiny shackles used to restrain enslaved children, and first-person accounts tell the stories of both free and enslaved African Americans in the making of America, with emphasis on the contributions of ordinary women and men.

Public display of the photo has brought renewed attention to the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Late in the Obama administration, Tubman was selected to replace Andrew Jackson on the revised $20 bill. However, plans for currency redesign are uncertain under President Trump, leaving the fate of the Tubman $20 in doubt. Hopefully, designers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing will go back to the drawing board and incorporate this new image.

Image credit: Library of Congress

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