Harriet Tubman was a slave, rebel and human rights leader from the early 1800s to 1913. The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, Maryland, near where Tubman lived and worked, centers on her life and legacy.
Right now, that museum is seeing an increase in visitors and public interest thanks to a photograph that has gone viral on the internet.
A surprising picture
The online image shows a little girl reacting to the museum’s new mural, a very large painting on a wall, of Tubman. In artist Michael Rosato’s work, Tubman is reaching her hand over a brick wall as if to guide someone over.
Katie Clendaniel is head of Downtown Cambridge, a local nonprofit. She said, “I think it’s just part of the artwork that you just want to reach out and grab the hand.”
A recent young visitor named Lovie had just that reaction to the mural. She reached up to the painting to try to take hold of Tubman’s hand. Her grandparents took a photo and put it on Instagram. Soon, it was everywhere.
And the museum has benefitted as a result. Bill Jarmon is with the Harriet Tubman Organization. He said before the photograph was published May 15, about 20 people a day visited the museum. Now, he said, it is getting more than 60 visitors a day.
The small museum opened in the 1980s. Some of the volunteers who operate it have personal ties to Tubman’s family. Visitors can enjoy the personal stories the volunteers and exhibits tell.
In her 20s, Tubman escaped enslavement in Maryland and went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, she became part of what is called the Underground Railroad - a secret network that helped others to escape from slavery. She returned to eastern Maryland many times to guide family and friends out of slavery. She is believed to have directly rescued about 70 people.
During the Civil War from 1860 to 1863, Tubman worked as a nurse, a cook, and a spy. She guided a Union Army raid in South Carolina. The African-American spies and troops attacked southern soldiers. In that one raid, 750 enslaved people were freed.
Yet, she lived in poverty for much of her life.
Tubman struggled for years to get her military pay and a pension for her services during the Civil War. Finally, Congress agreed to give her $20 a month.
Tubman died in 1913 in Auburn, New York, in a retirement home she had started. She thought she was about 93, but she did not know her own birth year.
Debate over Tubman bill
Tubman has been a subject of American news in recent months.
In 2016, President Barack Obama announced plans to put Tubman’s image on a new $20 bill. Right now, the $20 bill has an image of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and a slaveholder. The new bill with Tubman’s face was supposed to be released in 2020.
However in May, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told a congressional hearing that release of the bill had been postponed. He said a committee was working on the design. He said his main concern was making sure the design would help prevent counterfeiting. He also said release of the new bill would not happen until 2028, at the earliest.
His announcement was met with debate and protest.
Tubman would be the first African American and one of very few women ever to appear on U.S. paper currency. Presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized the $20 bill plan as “pure political correctness,” while praising Tubman personally.
All information about the Tubman $20 disappeared from the U.S. Treasury website after Trump took office in 2017.
Jarmon is among those who oppose the delay. He told VOA, “We were quite disappointed” about the delay.” The Harriet Tubman Organization is working to get Congress to order creation of the new $20 bill.
An unlikely hero
Amanda Fenstermaker is head of Dorchester County tourism and a fan of the Tubman museum there. She said she finds Tubman interesting because she was an unlikely candidate for heroism.
“I mean, she couldn’t read, she couldn’t write. She was small, a woman, she had a head injury for most of her life. It just makes me think about how she was used by a higher power, and how much she ... is affecting people in this profound sort of way,” she adds.
Katie Clendaniel is in agreement, noting Tubman’s appeal to people around the world.
“There’s definitely a global connection when it comes to civil rights and human rights,” she said. “I think for people who are struggling with liberty and identity and freedom, they’re going to want to know about someone like Harriet Tubman.”
I’m Jill Robbins.
Words in This Story
enslave – v. to make (someone) a slave — usually used as (be) enslaved
bill – n. chiefly US: a piece of paper money
counterfeit – v. to make an exact copy of (something) in order to trick people
mural – n. a usually large painting that is done directly on the surface of a wall
politically correct – n. agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people