Harriet Tubman has been known by many names—Araminta, Moses, conductor, daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt. All encompass the intersecting identities and experiences that Harriet Tubman encompassed over her lifespan. In March 2022, on the bicentennial of her birth, we look beyond these names to capture not only Harriet Tubman the icon, but Harriet the woman, and Harriet’s legacy of care, activism and bravery that influenced Black women across time.
Objects related to Harriet’s life highlight her impact on her contemporaries—such as the shawl gifted to her by Queen Victoria to acknowledge her international impact. Personal objects like her hymnal reveal her domestic life as a wife and mother, and the devout religious beliefs that inspired her to “conduct” hundreds of African Americans to freedom from bondage.
In the years after her death in 1913, Harriet became a feminist icon for Black women’s organizations, and Black women artists including Betye Sarr, Alison Saar, Bisa Butler, Faith Ringgold and Elizabeth Catlett saw in Harriet the inspiration for the courage and creativity to document the struggle for equality as Black and as women. A pioneer in what it means to be regarded as an icon, Harriet Tubman served as a physical manifestation of liberation for many. On the bicentennial of her birth, this dynamic woman of many trades continues to be revered as an American hero and a symbol of freedom.
Best known as the enslaved woman who brought emancipation to anyone who crossed her path, the legacy of Harriet Tubman’s lifework has inspired countless people across generations and geographic locations. Tubman was born into chattel slavery as Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822. Tubman was put into labor at an early age, and by the age of ten, she was hired out as a woodcutter, pest trapper and field worker. She preferred these jobs over domestic tasks in the “big house” under the scrutiny of her white mistress. Tubman’s strength of character was visible at this early stage. At age twelve, her intervention in a violent exchange between an overseer and a fugitive slave left her with substantial injuries.
After being struck on the head with a large iron weight, Tubman began suffering from severe headaches and a chronic sleep disorder called narcolepsy. In addition to her sudden attacks of sleep, she also experienced vivid religious dreams and hallucinations throughout her life. This injury left her anything but impaired.
In her final years on the plantation before escaping, Tubman became a familiar figure in the fields. A primed field hand, she was described as a “small, muscular woman” standing at 4’11”, yet carrying half cords of wood like any other man in the fields. She was often seen with her skirt looped around her waist and a vividly colored bandanna tied around her head.
In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom
This 1946–47 linocut expresses the major themes that connect the large body of work Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) produced during her lifetime: race and feminism. Her medium of choice changed from sculpture to printmaking after moving to Mexico to join the leftist art collective, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). Catlett’s artistry and politics inspired her linocuts featuring prominent Black people and themes. Much of the work she produced during her time in Mexico reflected the radical, worker-centered activism of the TGP and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
This linocut of Harriet Tubman from the series "The Black Woman (formerly the Negro Woman)" reveals Catlett’s desire to explore these major issues through the lens of Black women. We see Tubman in the simple attire that reflects the homespun clothing of enslaved women and the Black women sharecroppers of the 1940s, which collapses the historical narrative to show how long Black women have struggled against oppression. Tubman’s sinewy arm points towards freedom for the hundreds of Black people who come behind her, pointing to her strength and the weariness of the labor of this long journey.
God’s time [Emancipation] is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free. Harriet Tubman to Ednah Dow Cheney New York City, ca. 1859
During this period, the dream of freedom had spread across antebellum plantations and Tubman’s visions were no different. First, her father was set free when she was about eighteen, and then she also learned that the last will of her previous owner manumitted Tubman’s family. However, her new owner refused to acknowledge this and Tubman’s mother, Tubman herself and her siblings remained in bondage.
Her desire for freedom only grew over the years, particularly after marrying John Tubman, a freedman. The threat of her family’s separation and her difficult marriage forced Tubman to take action. On September 17, 1849, Tubman and her two brothers set out to escape the plantation, heading north. Her brothers soon turned back, and Tubman completed her journey alone with the help of the Underground Railroad on the nearly hundred-mile journey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But her dreams of flying over corn and cotton, the North Star beckoning, did not end with her finding liberty.
Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman made over a dozen journeys across the Mason-Dixon line, guiding family and friends from slavery to freedom. During this time, her captaincy earned her the nickname “Moses," after the religious leader. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress created a more dangerous journey for any enslaved person traveling northbound. With the government compelling northern law enforcement to now capture free Black Americans, Tubman’s strategies as a conductor became more militant and she began carrying a firearm for protection.
I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger. Harriet Tubman Suffrage Convention, New York, 1896
The Saga of Harriet Tubman, "The Moses of Her People"
The Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazine is a graphic novel series published by Bertram A. Fitzgerald. These graphic novels were produced between 1966 and 1976 to “implant pride and self-esteem in black youth while dispelling myths in others.” “We believe this can be accomplished through our visual presentation of worldwide achievements in an effortless and enjoyable manner with a magazine which can be widely distributed.”
This issue about Harriet Tubman was written by Joan Bacchus Maynard, an artist, community organizer and preservationist who was a member of the grassroots organization to save Weeksville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, founded by free African Americans. Tubman is depicted on the cover as a fierce and courageous figure, and the danger of her work as conductor is palpable in the rifle she carries to protect herself and those she leads to freedom.
Through her friendship with fellow abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Tubman created her own network within the Underground Railroad. After a decade as a conductor, Tubman was called to action when the American Civil War began in 1861. She proved herself resourceful as a nurse, and she treated Union soldiers and fugitive African Americans alike using the medicinal value of native plants, a skill she learned as a young, enslaved woman working in the woods. After just two years of service, Harriet was tasked with moving behind enemy lines to gather intelligence from a web of informants. First a nurse, laundress and cook, now a spy and scout, Harriet Tubman also became the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition when she led Black troops in the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina in 1863.
I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.Harriet Tubman to Sarah BradfordHarriet, The Moses of Her People (1886)
Despite her renown and her heroism, Tubman was only paid $200 for the entirety of her service—less than half of what her white male counterparts received monthly. Additional compensation from the government came several decades later in the form of a pension as the widow of Nelson Davis, a Black union soldier she married after the war rather than for her own service. After the introduction of a bill by a Republican congressmember to grant Tubman a pension, President William McKinley later signed a bill granting Tubman a pension for her role as an Army nurse. Financial issues throughout the remainder of her life did not stop Tubman from lending her service to anyone in need. In 1896, on the land adjacent to her home, Harriet’s open-door policy flowered into the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent Colored People, where she spent her remaining years until her death in 1913. This home, located in Auburn, New York, a city about an hour outside of Syracuse and near Seneca Falls—the recognized birthplace of American feminism and women’s rights—became a site of pilgrimage for African Americans.
The NMAAHC bridges the connection between emancipation and modern-day freedom struggles in the collection of Harriet Tubman’s personal effects. In 2009, Charles L. Blockson, a historian and expert on the Underground Railroad, donated to the Museum a collection of items relating to Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy that were collected and given to him by Tubman’s descendants. Items such as a fork and knife from the Tubman household demystify and ground Tubman, giving her a sense of personhood.
The legacy of Harriet Tubman holds multitudes. Myths and legends about her acts of valor on the Underground Railroad have inspired artists to retrace her courage and skill in works of art. Tubman’s name readily evokes the image of strength (as seen in the christening of a cargo ship named after her in World War II) and the complexities of being a Black woman—a pillar of courage to the public and a place of refuge for one’s family, friends and community.
Harriet Tubman was a hero and icon during her lifetime and afterwards. Objects in the Museum's collection tell the story of her life at home with family and the accolades she received from the public. Her personal piety formed the basis of her pursuit of freedom and to go back and conduct others to freedom. Tubman’s small 8 x 5 inch hymnal is inscribed with the names of its two owners: Harriet Tubman and her great-niece Eva Northup. Though Tubman never learned to read, her spiritual beliefs were strengthened by the hymns and spirituals associated with African American uplift and freedom. Tubman’s favorite hymn was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a hymn associated with the hidden messages between conductors on the Underground Railroad and the bondspeople traveling through it. The importance of this hymn to Tubman’s legacy is present in Alison Saar’s sculpture titled after the song.
Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial
Alison Saar (b. 1956), is a Los Angeles-based sculptor and mixed media artist who focuses on women and the African diaspora. This sculpture is titled after a Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which expresses a longing for a return to heaven. But it could also be a song of liberation, where the lyrics held coded messages that told of when Underground Railroad conductors like Harriet Tubman would arrive to assist in stealing away to freedom. This is a small-scale version of Saar’s 13 feet tall monument to Harriet Tubman that stands in Harriet Tubman Memorial Plaza, in south Harlem at St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard at West 122nd Street. Saar depicts Tubman "not as the conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as the train itself, an unstoppable locomotive.” Tubman’s forward motion tears up the roots of slavery. The skirt of her dress holds chains, knives, glass bottles and the faces of those she led to freedom.
In 2017, the common image of Harriet Tubman—that of an elderly woman in a white shawl—was forever changed with the discovery of a never-before-seen photograph of Tubman from the late 1860s at the back of a photo album owned by Emily Howland. Howland was a philanthropist, suffragist and educator who was also active in abolitionist circles. In 2017, her photo album was acquired jointly by the NMAAHC and the Library of Congress. Of the nearly fifty photographs of abolitionists, educators and statesmen included in the albums pages, there was the newly discovered photograph of Harriet Tubman. The carte-de-visite portrait of Harriet Tubman was taken in Auburn, New York, when Tubman was in her mid-forties. This image of Tubman at the height of her powers is especially interesting when noting how stylish she appears to be. She drapes her ruffled arm gracefully across a chair and the other rests on her checked skirt and she appears solemn yet assured.
I Go To Prepare A Place For You
Bisa Butler, an artist who uses textiles and quilting to share stories of African American history and culture, used Benjamin Powelson's portrait of Tubman from the Howland Album to recreate her vibrancy and strength. The quilt’s symbolism displays Tubman's need to conceal herself, her personality, and to express her religious beliefs. According to Butler, the sunflower motif is intended to “acknowledge Harriet Tubman’s reliance (and that of many people escaping slavery) on the North Star to help point the way towards freedom. The sun is also a star, and the sunflower symbolizes that guiding light. The sunflower is known as a spiritual and devotional flower because they follow the sun as it moves from East to West in the sky. The sunflowers appear to worship the sun and I use that to indicate Tubman’s devout faith.”
Portraits of Harriet Tubman in the NMAAHC collection document her as a woman, as a wife and mother, and as a caretaker. Observing these images of Tubman at different stages of her life provides further context for her story and legacy. These images give the famed Underground Railroad conductor a more tangible connection to the significant role of Black women’s activism and highlights the way images shape how we remember important Black women.
The NMAAHC shares the story of Harriet Tubman through its collections relating to her life, her activism, her strength and her community. The materials here provide a second glance at what we think we know and celebrate about Tubman on the 200th anniversary of her birth.
Browse Objects in the NMAAHC Collection Relating to Harriet Tubman
Written by Angela Tate, Curator of Women’s History, and Romya-Jenevieve Jerry, Annie Bell Shepherd Curatorial Intern in African American Women’s History
Published on March 4, 2022
Share Your Story
Because of Harriet, we understand there is always a path forward. Because of Harriet, we are empowered to be bold and confident against all odds. As you reflect on Tubman’s life and legacy, share who you are because of Harriet on social media using #HiddenHerstory.