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Crowdfunding Campaign Aims to Bring Rare Photo of Harriet Tubman Home

A previously unrecorded photograph of the trailblazing abolitionist is going to auction later this month, and the Harriet Tubman Home historic site hopes to be the top bidder.

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

The Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York, has launched its first crowdfunding campaign in attempt to acquire a rare, previously unrecorded photograph of Harriet Tubman. The black-and-white carte-de-visite, which depicts the abolitionist in her mid-40s, is set to hit the auction block on March 30 as part of the sale Printed & Manuscript African Americana hosted by Swann Auction Galleries. It is just one portrait in an album of 44 photographs, which has a pre-sale estimate of $20,000–30,000 and would represent the museum’s most significant acquisition, if successfully purchased. Its collection currently holds some 60,000 artifacts related to Tubman’s life and work.

The Harriet Tubman Home (photo courtesy the Harriet Tubman Home)

Hosted on Women You Should Fund, a rewards-based crowdfunding platform created by Women You Should Know, the #BringHarrietHome campaign has a minimum goal of $25,000 to ensure the Harriet Tubman Home can participate in the auction as a competitive bidder. A non-profit, the museum has received little outside financial funding in its 113 year-effort to preserve Tubman’s homestead and legacy, according to its President and CEO, Karen V. Hill. Donations arrive primarily from the descendants of slaves and from a handful of public and philanthropic contributions.

“We want this photo at the Harriet Tubman Home because there are so few photographs of her,” Hill told Hyperallergic. “As a young woman, she was very careful not to have her photograph taken because she was bringing freedom seekers from the south to the north on successive campaigns, and then she was working as a spy and a scout for the Union Army. Not having her photograph taken was really in her DNA, so this is amazing that she would actually sit for this photograph.”

The museum had reached out to the auction house to request it remove the 19th-century album from the sale, but Swann Galleries has a contract with the owner that is binding. The photograph — which once belonged to Emily Howland, a Quaker schoolteacher, abolitionist, and friend of Tubman’s — was identified by Harriet Tubman scholars only recently; its most recent owner had purchased it at a small auction and noticed the seated figure’s resemblance to the Civil War spy, and the consigner brought it to Swann, a Swann representative told Hyperallergic.

The Harriet Tubman Home’s National Historical Landmark plaque (photo courtesy the Harriet Tubman Home)

The campaign offers donors rewards from a Harriet Tubman Home Freedom Bracelet to limited-edition artworks to a rare bronze relief plaque of Tubman sculpted by Perry Carsley, who worked on the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Notably, by attempting to use crowdsourcing to avoid having the rare photograph of Tubman go to a private collection, the museum is working in a similar vein as Tubman did in her campaigns to lead slaves to freedom.

“She financed her campaigns for freedom working in the hospitality industry along Cape May and in the north, and she bought passage for people and did everything she needed to do,” Hill said. “Harriet also used the money she earned in the north to finance her campaign to free her niece, Kessiah and her children, who were scheduled to be auctioned off in Maryland. Knowing she must answer the call of freedom for her own relatives, Tubman gave Kessiah’s husband, a free man, the money for him to bid at auction for his wife and children and be successful. He was, and Harriet then led them to freedom.

“So we align ourselves with Tubman in our determined effort to try to take her off the auction block on March 30th.”

If secured, the photograph will go on permanent view in the museum’s visitor center, after an unveiling at a celebration to commemorate the site’s new designation as a National Historical Park. The 32-acre park comprises Tubman’s former home as well as a church where she worshipped.

“Our primary concern is on preserving the photo and making it public, and having it at the Harriet Tubman Home gives us a level of governance to make sure that the photo is always used in a way that informs and educates,” Hill told Hyperallergic. Museum experts will also study the other cartes-de-visite in the album, which includes portraits of many people from Auburn, where the heroic abolitionist had lived for over 50 years.

“It includes a lot of photos of people who were prominent during the abolitionist movement, and leading Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford Larson believes a good number of them are from central New York,” Hill said. “So it’s important for us to identify the people in those photographs and how they may be related to Howland, and if they had any connection back to Tubman. It’s an important Auburn story and an important American story.”

The #BringHarrietHome campaign, which has raised just over $2000 as of press time, concludes on March 29. In the accompanying promotional video, Hill describes the “notion of [Tubman] being auctioned as a huge emotional issue.” Tubman’s great-great-grandniece, Pauline Copes Johnson, too, shares her impressions of the portrait, saying,  “It’s great to be able to have a picture of Aunt Harriet in her younger days. She looks like she’s a very determined person. She has that expression on her face.”

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