Editor’s note: Launching Tuesday, Feb. 1, and culminating on March 10, the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project pays tribute to this feminist icon with a special commemorative issue through Ms. online and in print. Explore the interactive groundbreaking site here.
Karen V. Hill is president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. in Auburn, N.Y., and is overseeing a series of local programs relating to Harriet Tubman’s Bicentennial this year. In her leadership role, Hill has successfully pursued federal legislation to have Harriet Tubman’s homestead become one of the newest units of the National Park Service. The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park has the only extant resources related to the life and work of Harriet Tubman.
Ms.’s Janell Hobson interviewed Hill over Zoom.
Janell Hobson: For visitors who were to come to the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, what new information would they actually learn about Harriet Tubman that they might not know?
Karen V. Hill: If you’ve never been along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, then Auburn in central New York shows you that Tubman truly loved pastoral landscapes. She did not try to urbanize her life; the landscapes in Maryland where Tubman grew up are very similar to where she chose to live in Auburn. I mean that’s who she was, that’s where she felt comfortable.
To me that’s just startling, that this place in Maryland where she had been treated so harshly, she was able to separate the brutality of slavery from how she loved the land. She loved the beauty; she loved the quiet. Despite the cruelty of her experience in that place, she tried to recreate and replicate that landscape. She chose property that would give her that kind of sensibility, just her profound respect for what is natural.
Where did she learn the life lessons about what is good to put in your body and what you should stay away from? I think more work needs to be done on how she developed that kind of appreciation.
To me that’s just startling, that this place in Maryland where she had been treated so harshly, she was able to separate the brutality of slavery from how she loved the land.
Hobson: Could you say more about these life lessons?
Hill: She was incredibly aware of what she put into her body. She lived to be 91. This woman who everybody saw as a plain woman was just so much more, she was deep. Her favorite dessert was eating strawberries; that was her sugar. She even understood that eating the strawberries from a nice container or goblet—she liked these little nice fancy goblets—made a difference. Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig could do a whole campaign called “Do It Like Harriet”!
The financial services industry needs to promote her as a model for women and credit, women and home ownership. She understood why it was important for women to be able to acquire credit, why it was important to have home ownership. She also understood that African Americans were culturally driven to have multiple generations living together and how that has been foundational in our history and that this is a good thing. Now with families so dispersed, the pandemic has been really hard on families. But Tubman understood the weaving of the generations into family life was important to the health of the individual and communities.
AARP ought to be lifting up Tubman as the symbol of the senior movement, as someone who made a difference when she was providing shelter so that seniors could age with dignity and grace with the Home for the Aged, because African Americans were not welcome at the Home for the Aged that existed in the area, and she understood that one’s personal health was really important. It had huge consequences, life outcome consequences. That’s why she made sure she built an infirmary. She thought it was important that she provided free healthcare to Blacks and whites.
Hobson: We rarely hear these kinds of stories about Harriet Tubman, about her life in Auburn.
Hill: Tubman became a mother figure to so many of her own nieces and nephews. She was also so selfless, she just kept giving and giving and giving. She was a compassionate person.
When she met her second husband Nelson Davis, he was sickly, quite frankly, when he showed up at her house and she took him in as a boarder. She nursed him back to better health. I mean, he was truly in love with her and she with him, but she also understood what society expected of her. She was in his room all the time nursing him, and that doesn’t look so cool, people would start talking, so they got married. And he’s very dedicated to her. But she never felt—and I think this is really important—when she married him and she maintained her name Tubman, she never felt like she lost her agency to do what God had called her to do.
Hobson: Tubman seemed like someone who took on “head of household” status for her extended family in Auburn.
Hill: I mean, she operated a kiln on the property. A lot of those tremendous mansions that you see in and around Auburn are the bricks that were fired from the kiln on her property. She was an entrepreneur, she had to figure out, if I’m going to feed the homeless, or people who are food insecure, if I’m going to provide housing, if I’m going to provide free healthcare, I also have to generate revenue. She took herself to the brink of having no resources and being destitute many times. The reason why she did the Sarah Bradford book was just to make the money to support her ministries. I think of all of her work as her ministries. That’s why that carte de visite, that photo that was taken in downtown Auburn on Genesee Street at Powelson studio is so iconic and widely recognized.
Hobson: Are you referring to the recently discovered photograph?
Hill: Yes. The reason it’s so iconic is because it’s a new image, it’s a younger Tubman, but it gave the world better insight into her. We see another side of Tubman. That was how Tubman would be attired for those occasions that she had to go and influence the abolitionists and make a difference and talk about strategy. That’s how she would dress for those occasions in her attempts to be respectable. But, unlike Frederick Douglass, she wasn’t trying to have her image constantly out there. She just wanted to quietly do her work.
Unlike Frederick Douglass, she wasn’t trying to have her image constantly out there. She just wanted to quietly do her work.
Hobson: Didn’t the Harriet Tubman Home try to acquire this new image when it was auctioned?
Hill: Yes. Let me say I’m very happy that the photograph, which is owned by the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is in public space. The biggest fear I had is that this iconic photograph would end up in the hands of a private collector. We very zealously tried to campaign to become the owners of the photograph because it’s an Auburn story. Harriet Tubman is one of 47 images in that little album, and the overwhelming majority of those images tell Auburn’s story, a central New York story, and I felt she needed to come home.
I am disappointed that we did not prevail in the purchase of that photograph, and it really spoke to how our institutions still need to learn how to effectively partner with entities such as the Harriet Tubman Home and other nonprofits for the effective good of our history and what it is we’re trying to preserve. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that the Museum–or the Library of Congress–could not have made it a triumvirate in the purchase and the acquisition of that photo. We’re still trying to work through what needs to happen next.
My goal is at some point, we will be able to bring it to Auburn on loan from the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture so we could at least bring her home for a special occasion. But we have to learn how to be open to new dynamics and new partnerships, and both institutions missed what I thought would have been a rare and important opportunity. That said, thank goodness it is in the public square.
Hobson: It would be great for the photo to travel to Auburn. It’s the place where she was truly able to live out the rest of her life with her family and where she could truly practice freedom, on this side of the U.S.–Canadian border.
Hill: It makes you wonder, as the free Harriet, where did she find the fortitude to say, I must feed people, I must house people, I must take up the issue of women who are being battered, I must take up the issue of children who have no home—where did that come from? That came from her generosity in spite of everything.
I mean, she just could have come to Auburn and been the darling of the abolitionists. But, that’s not what she did; she continued in the struggle. And then to go back into the Civil War and fight in South Carolina. Colonel Montgomery wrote about it, and that’s incredible.
People try to minimize Tubman all the time, but she led those troops. She used her diminutive stature to work as a spy and a scout. She used her knowing how to care for others to serve as a nurse, and yes, she knew how to fight. Which is why she was able to lead those troops along the Combahee River. That’s why they all came out, 750 people. That is amazing, those kinds of numbers.
Hobson: What most stands out for you about Harriet Tubman’s life in Auburn?
Hill: Harriet Tubman was very results-oriented. She contributed mightily to the founding of the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church, which was formerly the AME Zion Church of Auburn. Silently, but effectively, because she found a sanctuary where social justice was very much part of the spiritual mission of the Church. And she decided that’s where she wanted her membership because she needed a church with a strong social justice message.
I think that in bequeathing her property 10 years before she died to the AME Zion Church–and largely because it became really too much to manage financially–the church became an institution to ensure its existence. But Harriet left eight women in charge as the managers for the Home for the Aged. She didn’t leave the women out. She respected women and understood that they had a leadership role. Governance was very important to her. And the fact that we still have a cottage of the Home for the Aged standing today is quite a testimony.
The essay series for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project is as follows:
Michelle D. Commander, “Let Me Not Forget: Harriet Tubman’s Enduring Speculative Visions” | Feb. 2
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Harriet Tubman, Astronomer Extraordinaire” | Feb. 3
The Life of Harriet Tubman
Kate Clifford Larson, “Harriet Tubman: A Life Beyond Myths” | Feb. 8
“Family Portraits of a Legend: Conversations with the Descendants of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 9
Deirdre Cooper Owens, “Harriet Tubman’s Disability and Why It Matters” | Feb. 10
The Untold Stories and Songs of Harriet Tubman
Edda L. Fields-Black, “‘Harriet’ and the Combahee River Uprising” | Feb. 15
A Conversation with Music Composer Nkeiru Okoye | Feb. 16
Maya Cunningham, “The Sound World of Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 17
Imagining Harriet Tubman
Amy Corron and Rebecca Rouse, “Why Video Games Education Needs Harriet Tubman” | Feb. 22
A Conversation with Artist Nettrice Gaskins | Feb. 23
Michele Wallace, “Harriet Tubman in the Art of Faith Ringgold” | Feb. 24
Rediscovering Harriet Tubman
Jonathan Michael Square, “The Two Harriets” | March 1
A Conversation with Karen V. Hill, Director of the Harriet Tubman Home | March 2
Douglas V. Armstrong, “Using Archaeology to Rediscover Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom” | March 3
Celebrating a Legacy
Keisha N. Blain, “Justice and the Meaning of the Tubman $20” | March 8
A Conversation with Mary N. Elliott, Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian Museum | March 9
Harriet Tubman Syllabus | March 10
Questions or press queries about the series? Contact [email protected]