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Who Was Harriet Tubman?

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This post was written by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

General Tubman, suffragist, spy, nurse, Moses, and Aunt Harriet are just some of the titles that heroic abolitionist Harriet Tubman has been given. Tubman, and her multiple roles and identities from her early life to her elderly years, was the focus of a recent Library of Congress/Young Readers Center program. Third-graders from Harriet Tubman Elementary School gathered in the Thomas Jefferson building for the event, and were welcomed by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), before enjoying a reading by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, the creators of Before She Was Harriet. Before they read, they described their motivation for telling the Harriet Tubman story in a different way, and from different angles.


The Library of Congress’s recent acquisition and digital release of a rare photograph of Harriet Tubman from circa 1868 presents an exciting opportunity for students to explore a newly-discovered primary source connected to an integral aspect of American history. To develop historical context, students might study images from the Library of Congress primary source set Civil War Images: Depictions of African Americans in the War Effort. To support further inquiry and research, invite your students to explore this online guide about Tubman, which also links to content related to historical and cultural experiences of African-Americans and women, as well as these visual portrayals (which are in the public domain) of Harriet Tubman:

A newly-discovered photograph of Harriet Tubman, who served as a Union army scout and spy, c 1868
[Portrait of Harriet Tubman], c 1870s
[Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, seated in chair, facing front, probably at her home in Auburn, New York], 1911

Based on these images and the Before She Was Harriet program, the following discussion questions may help motivate a conversation:

  • What questions do you have now about Harriet Tubman? Where might you explore these questions?
  • Explore and consider the roles of other prominent historical figures that you’ve studied.
  • After listening to the book Before She Was Harriet, list which of Tubman’s roles were new to you or most surprising.
  • As a complement to the literary portrayal of Tubman during the program, Ernestine “Tina” Wyatt (a descendant of Tubman) revealed her own personal perspective and reflections, sharing stories of Tubman’s abuse, struggles, faith, courage, perseverance, and altruism. Listen to her stories about her “Aunt Harriet.” What is most surprising or most interesting about what she shares? Why?
  • Consider and describe your own roles or identities (e.g., a student, a citizen, a sister, a friend). What do these roles mean to you? Why are they important to you? What might they mean to others?

Let us know in the comments what your students discover if you introduce them to these resources.

Comments (3)

  1. This is a great post and video. I am loving this book and I’m sure my kindergarteners will too. Thank you!

  2. I love all of this information – thank you so much, Ms. Lederle! I’m making a Harriet Tubman poster w/ facts and info for our home wall of notable Americans, and these resources are terrific!
    -Michael Ramos

  3. This was so helpful, thank you.

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