A Conversation with Mary N. Elliott, Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian Museum

Our final conversation in the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project features Mary N. Elliott, museum specialist and curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian Museum. Elliott helped to research, conceptualize and design the “Slavery and Freedom” inaugural exhibition for Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Who is this woman beyond the iconic? That was really important for us: to humanize the experiences of African Americans and to also show that we’re not monolithic.”

Justice and the Meaning of the Tubman $20

A white supremacist and sexist society has consistently relegated Black women to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Harriet Tubman, dubbed “the Moses of her people,” was no exception. She gave so much to the nation, yet in the years following the Civil War, Tubman struggled financially.

From persistent economic and housing insecurity to the highest infant mortality rates in the nation, Black women shoulder many of the same challenges Tubman endured in her lifetime. Let us work towards making these injustices a priority by the time Tubman appears on the redesigned $20.

Using Archaeology to Rediscover Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom

Archaeological and historic records related to Harriet Tubman’s life in freedom indicate that she was a resilient woman with deep spiritual beliefs and a willingness to open her home and to offer her resources to others. Despite obstacles, with the help of the AME Zion Church, and an array of supporters, Tubman created a special place where aging and homeless African Americans could find shelter and freedom from want.

The archaeological record recovered at the Harriet Tubman Home serves to remind us to move with deliberate action and to pursue freedom and dignity on behalf of others.   

Karen V. Hill, Director of the Harriet Tubman Home: ‘She Was Able To Separate the Brutality of Slavery From How She Loved the Land’

Karen V. Hill is president and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. in Auburn, N.Y. She has successfully pursued federal legislation to have Harriet Tubman’s homestead become one of the newest units of the National Park Service.

“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.”

The Two Harriets

The iconic figure of Harriet Tubman supersedes the factual details of her life: There is the real Harriet Tubman and there is how she is remembered, which looms larger. In most of the surviving photographs of Tubman, we see her as a stoic freedom fighter and abolitionist. However, in 2017, a recently discovered photograph of her was auctioned at Swann Galleries, and it shows us a new side of Tubman: a younger, more feminine Tubman, dressed on trend for the 1860s. Perhaps this photo represents a more hopeful Harriet Tubman forging a life post-emancipation.  

Harriet Tubman in the Art of Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold’s art on Harriet Tubman is an illustration of her capacity as an artist for taking somber stories and turning them into stories of triumph, victory and joy. 

Faith (my mother) is a fabulist whose real interest is in projecting her ideas into the future. The older I get, the more I appreciate my mother’s art, in particular her insistence upon rendering the most apparently despairing circumstances of our histories as Black folk as opportunities for spiritual and magical transcendence.

A Conversation with Artist Nettrice Gaskins, “Beacon of Hope” Creator

Nettrice Gaskins is a digital artist and self-identified Afrofuturist whose work has been receiving national attention. A 2021 Ford global fellow, Gaskins’s work is featured in the current “FUTURES” exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Ms.’s Janell Hobson, who invited Gaskins to create original art for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project, interviewed the artist over Zoom.