A PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN photograph of Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913) depicts her seated with her arm draped over the back of a chair. Impeccably dressed, she wears a full skirt and buttoned bodice with detailed stitching on the sleeves. Believed to be the earliest image of Tubman in existence, the portrait of the storied abolitionist dates from circa 1868-69. She’s in her mid 40s and, gazing past the viewer, her expression conveys both pride and dignity.

The photograph is contained in a photo album that belonged to Emily Howland (1827–1929), a white Quaker who taught African American children during the Civil War era. Two years ago, the embossed leather-bound volume was acquired jointly by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of NMAAHC, said in a statement. “This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. …Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than we realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist—it helps to humanize such an iconic figure.”

“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; …Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than we realize.” — Lonnie G. Bunch

Yesterday in Washington, D.C., the Tubman portrait was unveiled to the public for the first time at NMAAHC. Bunch and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden stood on either side of a draped display case and together removed to covering to reveal the photograph displayed in the album. In the moment, looking at the rare portrait, Bunch said, “Juxtaposed with artwork, with the other artifacts of Harriet Tubman, that’s it. Fulfills the parameters of her life. Really exciting.”

Bunch was referencing the fact that the portrait enhances the museum’s existing collection, which features nearly 20 artifacts—additional photographs, memorabilia, and personal items belonging to Tubman, including a book of gospel hymns, a knife and fork from her household in Auburn, N.Y., a handkerchief, and a silk lace and linen shawl given to her by Queen Victoria of England around 1897.


From left, “Portrait of Harriet Tubman” (contained in Emily Howland photo album), circa 1868-69, photo by Benajamin Powelson (albumen and silver on photographic paper on card mount (Image): 3 11/16 × 2 1/4 inches / 9.4 × 5.7 cm); (Image and Mount): 3 15/16 × 2 7/16 inches / 10 × 6.2 cm). | Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress; Shown on reverse of photo, “Powelson, Photographer/77 Genesee-St./Auburn, New York./Copies can be had from this Negative.”


OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS, conservators at the Library of Congress have restored the photo album and preserved its contents—reattaching the leather cover and cleaning the photographs and repairing chips and tears to some of the aged images. The volume features 49 photos, nearly all of them 3.5 x 2-inch cartes-de-visite (small photographs mounted on a larger paper cards). The rare Tubman portrait, a carte-de-visite, is tucked into the last page of the album. Other photos include a more commonly seen portrait of Tubman depicting her later in life, along with images of other activists and abolitionists, fellow teachers, some public figures, and family members of Howland.

An article in the January/February 2018 issue of Library of Congress Magazine provides background information about Howland and her connection to Tubman:

    Howland lived a long, accomplished life. Born in upstate New York, she taught at a school for free African-American girls in Washington, D.C., before the Civil War, taught newly freed slaves to read at Camp Todd in Virginia during the war and afterward established her own school for former slaves. She later became the first woman to serve as director of a national bank—a position she held until her death at age 101.

    The album was a gift from friend Carrie Nichols, according to an inscription inside, on New Year’s Day in 1864, when both were teaching at the Camp Todd school on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington estate.

    The gift was an elegant one: The album is heavily die-embossed, stamped in gold, with gilded edges impressed in an ornate floral pattern and brass clasps made to resemble elaborate, buckled straps.

    …Howland and Tubman became friends after Tubman bought a farm in upstate New York, where Howland belonged to an established circle of abolitionist women.


From left, Detail view of Harriet Tubman portrait (circa 1868-69), photo by Benajamin Powelson, shown in Emily Howland photo album; and “Portrait of Harriet Tubman” (contained in Howland album), circa 1871-1876, printed later, photo by Harvey B. Lindsley (silver and collodion on printing out paper, 5 3/8 × 3 7/16 inches / 13.7 × 8.7 cm). | Both Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress


Information about the condition of to the album and the preservation process are cited in the article: “When the Library received the album, the front cover and spine were detached from the book’s main body, the back cover was only tenuously attached and the leather covering was abraded and broken in places—a natural result of a century and a half of use.”

There are also details regarding the contents of the album. In addition to the images of Tubman, portraits of U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts; woman’s activist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War; and author Charles Dickens, are in the album.

A portrait of a smartly dressed African American woman is inscribed faintly on the back: “Sidney Taliaferro 1881.” According to the article, “The Taliaferros …were one of several African-American families chosen by Howland to settle on land she purchased in 1866 for her Howland Chapel School in Heathsville, Virginia. Sidney was likely one of the first pupils at the school.”

The album also contains the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American elected to Congress in 1868, representing a district that included New Orleans.

“HARRIET TUBMAN was a change-maker and a trailblazer—a citizen who helped shape this country,” said Hayden. “This amazing album gives us a new view of her life, along with dozens of other abolitionists, educators, veterans and leaders who took an active role in citizenship. At the Library of Congress, we’re focused on exploring America’s change-makers, and we’re thrilled to join the Smithsonian in sharing these portraits with the nation.”

The Howland photo album has been given pride of place. It’s the first new acquisition displayed in Heritage Hall, the main lobby area of NMAAHC. Featured in the album, the Tubman portrait will be on view in Heritage Hall through March 31 and thereafter will be exhibited in the “Slavery and Freedom” section of the museum’s History gallery. CT


NMAAHC is hosting related programs on March 29—a daylong symposium, “Pictures With Purpose: A Symposium On Early African American Photography,” and an evening keynote talk and panel discussion, Harriet’s Daughters: An Evening Of Conversation And Celebration. (Registration for Harriet’s Daughters reached capacity and is closed.)


WATCH VIDEO from Smithsonian Channel about Harriet Tubman’s life

FIND MORE The display of Harriet Tubman’s rare portrait in Emily Howland’s photo album of part of Because of Her Story, an initiative the Smithsonian is promoting as “one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document display and share the compelling story of women.”


“Pictures with Purpose: Early Photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture” is the seventh volume in the museum’s Double Exposure series exploring the history of African American photography. Two critically recognized biographies of Harriet Tubman have been published: “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom” by Catherine Clinton and Kate Clifford Larson’s “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” Many other volumes and a number of children’s books have also been published about Tubman.


Photograph album owned by Emily Howland, 1864 (leather, metal, and ink on paper, 6 1/4 × 5 1/4 × 2 7/8 inches / 15.9 × 13.3 × 7.3 cm, when album is closed) – Album manufactured by James B. Smith & Co.; Signed by Caroline N. Lacy; Received by Emily Howland. | Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress


Alternative view of Emily Howland photo album. | Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress


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