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A Newly Discovered Photograph of Harriet Tubman Heads to Auction

A new photograph of Harriet Tubman adds to the visual record of this renowned African American.

Carte-de-visite of Harriet Tubman, found in an album from the 1860s (all photos courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)

A previously unrecorded photograph of Harriet Tubman has resurfaced from an album of cartes-de-visite, showing a considerably younger image of the abolitionist than those captured in other known portraits. Likely taken between 1865 and 1868 — right at the end of the Civil War, when she was in her mid-40s — it depicts her in full, seated calmly on a chair, wearing a checkered skirt and black blouse. She gazes directly at us, and her expression is resolute but still soft, offering little hint that she spent her previous years devoted to liberating countless slaves.

Silver print of Harriet Tubman

Unlike her fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who holds the title as the most photographed 19th-century American, Harriet Tubman seems to have sat in front of a camera on few occasions: known images of her make up but a small pool. The rare picture, preserved in an album of 44 cartes-de-visite, was taken by an unknown, local photographer in Auburn, where she moved to care for her family after the war. It comes to public eye as the collection is part of a forthcoming sale by Swann Auction Galleries, Printed & Manuscript African Americana. Two Harriet Tubman scholars have verified the rare portrait, according to the auction house.

“The importance of the image was not realized until the previous owner bought it at a small auction and noticed the resemblance, at which point the consignor brought it to Swann,” a Swann representative told Hyperallergic. “Images of many of the black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth are rare; some by attrition and also because there were not a great many copies generated in the first place.”

The album was once owned by Emily Howland, a schoolteacher born to Quaker abolitionists from Sherwood, New York. Howland herself was an active abolitionist and suffragist since youth, and she taught at Myrtilla Miner’s school — an institute for African American girls — before working with newly freed blacks in a contraband camp in Washington that then moved to Arlington, Virginia. It was there at Camp Todd that she found a teaching mentor in one Carrie Nichols, who gifted Howland the album.

Among the object’s treasures is another small, silver print of Tubman showing the more familiar image of her standing with her hands on a chair. That image dates between 1860 and 1876. There’s also a rare photograph of John Willis Menard, the first black man elected to Congress, which specialists believe represents the only known photograph of Menard. It has served as the source of numerous engravings published in newspapers from that period. Other cartes-de-visite from the album portray individuals from antislavery lawyer Charles Sumner and British novelist Charles Dickens to entertainers Commodore Nutt and his wife. And adding a touch of intimate history to the archive is one portrait of a student Howland tutored, identified as Suzie Bruce.

While we may not have a huge visual record of Tubman, we’ll be very familiar with at least one image of her in a few years: as the Treasury Department announced last spring, her face will replace that of Andrew Jackson on a forthcoming $20 bill.

A portrait of John Willis Menard
Portrait of Commodore Nut and his wife
Carte-de-visite of Charles Sumner

h/t The Citizen

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