If you've ever seen a picture of Harriet Tubman, there's a good chance it was taken when she was in her fifties or older. As Smithsonian reports, this is partly what makes a newly unveiled photo of a 40-something Tubman so remarkable.
The image, which was part of Quaker abolitionist Emily Howland's photo album from the 1860s, has gone on public display for the first time at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where it will be permanently displayed. The museum and the Library of Congress jointly bought the album from Swann Auction Galleries in New York.
Portraits of other abolitionists and notable people also appear in the album, but museum founding director Lonnie Bunch told Smithsonian he was particularly "stunned" by the image of a young Tubman. "All of us had only seen images of her at the end of her life. She seemed frail. She seemed bent over, and it was hard to reconcile the images of Moses (one of Tubman's nicknames) leading people to freedom," Bunch said.
"But then when you see this picture of her, probably in her early forties, taken about 1868 or 1869 … there's a stylishness about her. And you would have never had me say to somebody 'Harriet Tubman is stylish.'"
The photo was taken not long after the Civil War had ended. By that point in her life, Tubman had already achieved a great deal: After escaping the plantation where she was enslaved, she helped hundreds of others navigate their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad. She also served as a spy for the Union Forces and became the first woman to lead a raid during the Civil War, on which occasion she freed 700 slaves in South Carolina.
Bunch said the photo of Tubman is not only striking, but also illustrates the ways in which average Americans can change the course of history. "It reminds people that someone like Harriet Tubman was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things," Bunch said. "So, this means you too can change the world."
The album also contains an image of Charles Dickens and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first black man elected to Congress.