Library Conserves, Digitizes Rare Photographs Including Harriet Tubman Portrait

Open-Album-Tubman-Portrait copy.jpgThe Library of Congress has conserved and digitized an album containing 48 rare photographs dating to the 1860s - including a previously unrecorded portrait of Harriet Tubman and images of other abolitionists - and the album will be exhibited for the first time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture later this year. Each image was cleaned, digitally scanned and returned to the album.

The full collection is now available online at this link.

The two national cultural institutions jointly acquired the historical album at auction in 2017 by pooling funds to ensure this remarkable gathering of American portraits would be accessible to the public in perpetuity. The images included the previously unknown portrait of Tubman at the back of the album, as well as the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to the U.S. Congress.

Since the acquisition, Library conservators have carefully reattached the cover, treated the leather album and cleaned the photographs to ensure long-term preservation. Digitization experts from both institutions consulted on the best scanning specifications to apply. Two catalogers have studied the individuals portrayed and found full names for all but three of the people. They invite the public to help identify the remaining individuals.

The portraits displayed together in the album can tell many stories. Education is a strong theme as well as abolition. At least 10 individuals portrayed were teachers, including African-American women. They were identified through genealogy records and Freedmen’s School reports published in Quaker journals. Two of the teachers, Nancy Johnson and her sister, Mary Ann Donaldson, were part of the American Missionary Association’s effort to educate African Americans at Port Royal, South Carolina, during the early 1860s.

 “Now people in our nation’s capital and around the world can see these important figures from American history and learn more about their lives,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “We are proud this historic collaboration with the Smithsonian has made these pictures of history available to the public online.”

The public will have a chance to view the rare album for the first time in person at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a special exhibit later this year. The digital images also will be presented through the museum’s website.

“This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail. This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist. Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than most people realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist. And that’s a good thing,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The album was originally compiled as a gift for Emily Howland (1827-1929), a Quaker schoolteacher and abolitionist who lived in Sherwood, New York, and taught at Camp Todd, a Freedmen’s camp in Arlington, Virginia, during the Civil War and then founded her own school after the Civil War. Howland continued adding photographs later.

Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and took great risk to help relatives and others escape bondage as a famous conductor of the Underground Railroad.  Abolitionists and prominent figures portrayed in the album include: Charles Sumner, Lydia Maria Child, William Henry Channing, Colonel C.W. Folsom, Wendell Phillips and Charles Dickens.

The album was jointly acquired with funds from the Library of Congress James Madison Council and funds from the Smithsonian.

Image: Representatives from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress inspect the photo album of Emily Howland, containing rare portraits of Harriet Tubman and John Willis Menard, April 10, 2017. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)


Auction Guide