New Podcast Explores Harriet Tubman’s History and Image

A new photograph helps increase our understanding of an American hero

Harriet Tubman in the 1860s.
Harriet Tubman in the 1860s.
Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman is remembered for a host of things — notably, her escape from slavery and her work leading others to freedom via the Underground Railroad. But Tubman has also been hailed for her work in helping the Union defeat the Confederacy during the Civil War. This included an abundance of work as a spy for the Union — as well as her work planning and executing the Combahee Ferry Raid, a landmark in American history.

As Alice George notes at Smithsonian Magazine, many Americans’ image of Tubman comes from a portrait of her taken later in life:

… the best-known Tubman photograph, taken in 1885, showed an elderly matron rather than the steadfast adventurer her history describes. “That’s been the tradition of viewing Harriet Tubman. She did all these daring things, but not having a visual image of her that would connect her experiences and what she did with that older woman was almost an oxymoron,” says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

In 2017, a photograph of Tubman from the late 1860s entered the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now, a new episode of the podcast Portraits explores this photograph and how it’s changed how people envision Tubman.

The podcast includes commentary from Hayden and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, who directed the acclaimed film Harriet. Lemmons spoke of the photo helping clarify Tubman’s work as a leader. “Her life lends itself inherently to an adventure story, but we couldn’t connect the image of her as an old, almost kindly looking, slightly stern old lady to the stories we knew of her heroics,” she said. With this new image, the public’s understanding of Tubman and her works might add a new dimension.

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