Rare photo of a young Harriet Tubman goes on display at NMAAHC

The photo, discovered in recent years, is a departure from the images depicting the freedom fighter in her old age.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) taken circa 1868 or 1869 by Benjamin F. Powelson. This image had been owned by Emily Howland and is the earliest known photo of the abolitionist. (Library of Congress)

A rare photograph of abolitionist and suffragette, Harriet Tubman that had been part of a will now be on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. The photo depicts Tubman in her mid 40s wearing a stylish outfit for the day. It is believed that the picture was taken in her Auburn, N.Y. home, sometime in the late 1860s.

Tubman (1822-1913) is typically depicted at a much older age in photos, but museum curators believe that this may be the earliest known photograph of her. NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch believes this photo will show a different side to the Underground Railroad conductor who also served the Union army during the Civil War as a nurse, cook and spy.

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“This photo helps us humanize her, helps us see her as a woman of middle age, but a woman with strength and stamina,” Bunch told NBC Washington. “And so, for me, what this allows us to do is to tell a fuller, richer story and help people remember Harriet Tubman not so much as an icon as a human.”

The station reported the image of Tubman was a part of what is known as the Howland Album, which contained images of an array of historical figures like women’s rights activist and abolitionist Lydia Marie Child and the only known photograph of the first African American man elected to the U.S. Congress, John Willis Menard. The museum and the Library of Congress worked together to purchase the collection of timeless photographs.

The photo was uncovered in 2017 when historian Kate Clifford Larson, author of  “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” found the image in the Howland Album. New York auction house Swann Galleries auctioned the photo that year as part of a collection called “Printed & Manuscript African Americana” which went for a record $1 million, according to the gallery.

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The Library of Congress and the NMAAHC acquired the photo album, including the photo and displayed it online last year but it is now on display for public viewing at the museum.

“I felt like this is the museum’s version of a Mona Lisa,” said Rhea Combs, curator of photography for the NMAAHC. “This is our Mona Lisa. She would be the equivalent.”

Two of Tubman’s descendants expressed their pleasure with the photo being displayed at the museum.

“Wow, because I have only ever seen the older ones when she was older and after she had moved to New York,” said Deborah Brice, a descendant of Tubman who lives in Alexandria, Va. “Like the gentleman said, she was frail. So, to see her young and vibrant, that’s exciting.”

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