Rare Photo of Harriet Tubman Preserved

Rare Photos of Tubman, John Willis Menard Now Online

Library of Congress
Mar 6, 2018 · 8 min read

By Mark Hartsell

This small, leather-bound album shows the signs of its age: broken in places, barely holding together in others, scuffed but somehow still elegant after a century and a half of use.

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The Emily Howland album before treatment. Photo by Shawn Miller.

If time has taken a toll on the album, the photographs inside — placed there by a school teacher so long ago — are timeless and extraordinary.

Tucked into the album’s last page is a previously unknown photo of one of American history’s great figures: abolitionist Harriet Tubman, in what’s believed to be the earliest photo of her in existence.

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This portrait of Harriet Tubman, a previously unknown image, is believed to be the earliest photo of the famed abolitionist in existence. Powelson, photographer, 1868 or 1869.

Turning back a dozen pages reveals another treasure: the only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress.

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The only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African-American elected to Congress. Leeson, photographer, between 1868 and 1870.

The album, and the one-of-a-kind photos it holds, were jointly acquired last year by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in a most unusual collaboration between two public institutions. Together, they are working to conserve the album for future generations and make it accessible to the public.

The Library and museum each hold vast collections of material related to African-American history. To those, they have added this album, which once belonged to Emily Howland, a Quaker educator and abolitionist who taught African-Americans during the Civil War era.

“This album spoke to my heart in a way that no other compilation of portraits has in my 40 years of working with historical pictures,” said Helena Zinkham, acting director of Collections and Services at the Library. “Offering new faces for Harriet Tubman and John Menard is important for recognizing that the lives of historical figures are far more complex than a single surviving portrait can reveal. Many community as well as individual stories can also be told from this album — about the lives of African-Americans, women and families in the mid-1800s as well as connections among educators and abolitionists.”

Howland lived a long, accomplished life. Born in upstate New York, she taught at a school for free African-American girls in Washington, D.C., before the Civil War, taught newly freed slaves to read at Camp Todd in Virginia during the war and afterward established her own school for former slaves. She later became the first woman to serve as director of a national bank — a position she held until her death at age 101.

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This photograph of teacher and abolitionist Emily Howland was taken in 1864, the year she was given the photo album as a gift. Courtesy Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.

The album was a gift from friend Carrie Nichols, according to an inscription inside, on New Year’s Day in 1864, when both were teaching at the Camp Todd school on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington estate.

The gift was an elegant one: The album is heavily die-embossed, stamped in gold, with gilded edges impressed in an ornate floral pattern and brass clasps made to resemble elaborate, buckled straps.

Inside, Howland kept 44 cartes-de-visite, 3.5-inch- by-2-inch photos mounted on slightly larger cards, then tucked inside a page composed of a double-sided mat, where they peek out through a window cut in the center.

Such photos were popular in the mid- to late 19th century, when people would assemble cards depicting prominent individuals they admired or friends and family — often placed alongside each other in a mix of the famous and obscure, intimate and distant.

In Howland’s album, teacher Miss Hall follows English author Charles Dickens, and Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War, comes soon after Princess Dagmar of Denmark, who years later became empress of Russia.

Most, though, are friends, family, teachers, students, fellow abolitionists and suffragists — a 150-year-old network of people working for a common cause, preserved in a photo album’s pages.

“One thing that emerges in this album is what a tight-knit group this was,” said Beverly Brannan of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. “They were abolitionists, they were interested in education of all children, but especially children of slaves and former slaves as well. They stayed in touch for most of their lives, working on these projects together.”

The Menard and Tubman images, of course, are the most significant.

Howland and Tubman became friends after Tubman bought a farm in upstate New York, where Howland belonged to an established circle of abolitionist women.

The Tubman photo is a full-length portrait by Benjamin Powelson of Auburn, New York, that Library conservators estimate was taken in 1868 or 1869 — shortly after her most active period of spiriting slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Most photos of Tubman, who died in 1913 at about 91, show her as a sometimes–fierce older woman and later as a frail, swathed figure in a wheelchair. This new photo makes a striking contrast: A relaxed, fortysomething Tubman sits with her arm casually draped across the chair back, smartly dressed in a bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist.

“She is much more stylish than expected,” Brannan said, “and her expression just looks lively.”

Menard was born free in Illinois, moved to New Orleans in 1868 and that year was elected to represent his new home district in Congress.

He never served, though: He was denied the seat after the loser challenged the result. The Library previously held only one image of Menard: a woodcut that depicted him delivering an address to Congress in 1869 — the first ever by an African-American.

That image, however, has one major flaw: It shows Menard only from a distance and slightly from behind. The Howland photo — the only one of him known to exist — is a close-up portrait.

Most folks in the album, however, aren’t as well-known as Tubman or Menard. Inscriptions provided information about a few: Family friend Harold White survived the Battle of Shiloh but died of fever months later. Walter Johnson taught alongside Howland at the D.C. school but later died after falling down a mineshaft.

The Library and the museum are working to expand knowledge of the album. Mary Mundy, a senior cataloger in the Prints and Photographs Division, is conducting research that creates a fuller picture of the people in the portraits.

“As you would expect, information about the lesser-known people is scattered throughout primary and secondary resources, revealing only fragments about their lives,” she said.

A case in point is the portrait of a well-dressed African-American woman, whose identity was a mystery until Library photo conservator Alisha Chipman removed the image from the album and discovered a faint inscription on the back: “Sidney Taliaferro 1881.”

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Portrait of Sidney Taliaferro. Photographer, H.D. Garns, 1881?

That was the clue Mundy needed. The Taliaferros, she learned, were one of several African-American families chosen by Howland to settle on land she purchased in 1866 for her Howland Chapel School in Heathsville, Virginia. Sidney was likely one of the first pupils at the school.

Howland eventually left Heathsville to care for her widowed father back in New York and invited Sidney along to further her education at a school run by a relative. This prepared Sidney for additional studies in Washington at Howard University’s Normal School. Sidney then taught at the Chapel School.

The album’s portrait of Taliaferro, taken in a Philadelphia studio, probably was made while she worked as a domestic to support herself between teaching jobs.

She eventually married a Maryland farmer, raised two daughters and resumed teaching — the federal census of 1910 shows her family living again in Heathsville and her occupation as teacher. She and Howland remained friends, too. Taliaferro even honored her old friend in her elder child’s middle name: Howland.

“My research would have been much more difficult before databases and other online resources,” said Mundy, who discovered information about Taliaferro from the National Register of Historic Places, the census, Howard University catalogs and scholarly works.

In addition to expanding our knowledge of the album, the Library also is ensuring its preservation.

When the Library received the album, the front cover and spine were detached from the book’s main body, the back cover was only tenuously attached and the leather covering was abraded and broken in places — a natural result of a century and a half of use.

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The Emily Howland album during treatment, with its back cover detached. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The album’s design is part of the problem, said Jennifer Evers of the Library’s Conservation Division. “This is why albums are so problematic — the only thing holding these really heavy pages together is a strip of textile,” Evers said. “It failed in the ways you would expect it to fail with use over time.”

Another complication: The spine showed evidence of poorly executed repairs from long ago.

To treat the album, Evers removed those old repairs, cleaned the book’s components and repositioned and strengthened the spine with thin, long-fibered paper made from the bark of a mulberry tree. She also repaired the album cover, rebuilding it with layers of textile and leather meticulously toned or dyed to match the original cover and reattached it to the main body.

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Alisha Chipman (left) and Jennifer Evers examine the album during pre-treatment photographic documentation. | Evers cleans the spine of the album to reduce embrittled adhesive. | Evers consolidates friable leather onto the spine of the album. | Photos by Shawn Miller.

The photos themselves were in good shape, some yellowed or faded, some showing small tears and losses.

To treat the images, Chipman consolidated areas of loss and gently cleaned the photo surfaces — careful not to disturb inscriptions or hand-coloring. She repaired tears with thin, long-fibered paper, reattached lifting prints to their mounts and humidified and flattened creases and folds.

Now, this little leather-bound piece of history, given to Emily Howland generations ago and filled with rare images that reveal an era, will be available for scholars and the public for generations to come.

Library of Congress conservators discuss their work on the Emily Howland Album.

“The most rewarding thing is that, at the end, people are going to be able to experience it as an album,” Chipman said. “Now, everything will be safe and secure, and you can experience the entire album as it was meant to be.”

Mark Hartsell is a writer at the Library of Congress.

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