Harriet Tubman: Teaming Up to Acquire a Rare Photograph

This post draws on the article “Pulling Together for Tubman,” published in the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online.

Harriet Tubman

Newly discovered portraits of long-famous Americans rarely surface—especially 150 years after they were made.

Last spring, however, a U.S. auction house put up for bid a photograph album that contained not one, but two such images from the Civil War era: a previously unknown photo of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress.

Today, the album is jointly held by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—the result of a most unusual, and possibly unique, venture by these two public institutions.

The album, and the 44 portraits tucked inside, once belonged to abolitionist and teacher Emily Howland. Those photos collectively represent a community of abolitionists, government officials, students, teachers, friends and family—and a potential source of rich stories and research about aspects of American life during and after the Civil War.

Officials at both the Library and the museum immediately understood the historical significance of the album and its value to the public. “We saw the album as rising to the level of an important, national story that often is not well understood,” said Michèle Gates Moresi, the supervisory museum curator of collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

They also understood the importance of ensuring that the album remained in public hands, guaranteeing permanent public access and that the album and photos would remain together. Private dealers sometimes break such objects into pieces to sell separately—a real possibility in this case, considering the importance of the Tubman photo.

John Willis Menard

“There was an idea of caretaking or stewardship—keeping her safe,” said Helena Zinkham, acting director of Collections and Services at the Library. “What it means for an album like that to come into the public space is that all those people in it will stay together as a community.”

Just as they have for a century and a half.

Without special support, however, the Library alone wasn’t likely to have the resources to mount a winning bid for the album.

So, the Library and the National Museum of African American History and Culture agreed to make a joint bid, hoping to preserve the album at their two public, national institutions and make the images widely available online.

The Madison Council, the Library’s private-sector advisory group, provided initial purchase funds, and the museum matched. The collaboration proved essential for a winning bid on auction day, where the final sale price rose well above the pre-auction estimate.

The Howland album now has undergone careful conservation treatment at the Library, and research is expanding the institutions’ knowledge of it—many portraits that once lacked names now have been identified.

Thanks to two federal agencies with a common cultural heritage and a shared sense of purpose, Emily Howland’s album, and the photos she kept inside it many decades ago, will stay together and remain accessible to the public for many decades to come.

New Online: Rare Photo of Harriet Tubman Preserved for Future Generations

This post draws on the article “Building Black History: A New View of Tubman,” published in the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online. A remarkable photo album brought two major institutions together to restore and preserve an important piece of American history. Today, the […]

Women’s History Month: “Hidden Figures of Women’s History”

To celebrate the start of Women’s History Month, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from “Hidden Figures of Women’s History,” the March–April issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine, available in its entirety online. The except features a vignette about Lois Weber, an early 20th-century filmmaker, by Mike Mashon, head of the Library’s Moving […]

African-American History Month: Curating Black History

In this post, historians from the Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture highlight how collection items shed light on the black experience. The post is reprinted from the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The entire issue is available online. Adrienne Cannon is the Afro-American history […]

African-American History Month: Making Freedom the Law of the Land

To celebrate African-American History Month and the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday—Feb. 12, 1809—we are sharing an article from “Building Black History,” the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine, available in its entirety online. The Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln understood, was a wartime measure that wouldn’t ensure the freedom of […]

African-American History Month: Happy Birthday, Frederick Douglass!

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, and this month is African-American History Month. To celebrate, we are highlighting favorite items from the Library’s collections. This post is reprinted from “Building Black History,” the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine, available in its entirety online.   This […]

My Job at the Library: Audio Engineer Helps to Preserve the Nation’s Sounds

Bryan Hoffa discusses his work at the Library’s Audio-Visual Conservation Center. This post was first published in LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. “My Job” is a regular feature in the magazine, issues of which are available in their entirety online. How would you describe your work at the Library? My job at the Library’s Packard […]

Building Black History: Find Your Roots

This is a guest post by Bryonna Head, a public affairs assistant in the Communications Office. It is reprinted from the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online. The Library’s local history and genealogy resources make it easier for African-Americans to explore their family histories. […]

Veterans on the Homefront: War Creates an Artist

This is a guest post by Megan Harris, a librarian with the Veterans History Project. It is one of four profiles that make up “Veterans on the Homefront,” published in the November–December 2017 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. This profile recounts the way in which Tracy Sugarman was affected by his time […]

EverydayLOC: New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! There is something sort of refreshing to me about saying those words. I have always fully embraced the notion that a new calendar year, psychologically speaking, offers a particular moment to reset, recommit and reprioritize. Whether you call them New Year’s Resolutions or, as one of my dear friends refers to them, […]