Days before Good Friday, the Rev. Stacey Hamilton continued to contemplate what she would preach about some of the last words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hamilton, one of seven black women preaching at “Women With a Word,” a service hosted by the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., prayed and did her “due diligence” by studying the meaning of the passage’s original Greek as she prepared to write her sermon.
In a growing tradition, at least a dozen churches across the country are hosting Good Friday services this year that feature seven African American female preachers, expounding in seven short sermons on the last seven phrases uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion.
“It’s a big deal because historically black women have been underrepresented,” said Hamilton, associate pastor of innovation and engagement at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville.
“There’s still a lot of traditional views as they relate to women in leadership and having the ability to actually declare the Word and people actually come out and listen to women,” added the pastor, who also works as a computer engineer. “It’s definitely a shift within the last couple of years.”
Vanderbilt University Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said she’s seeing “more and more” instances of black women preaching in “Seven Last Words” services.
Though some black women preachers recall being featured in Good Friday services decades ago, the phenomenon got a boost five years ago, when seven millennial black women preachers spoke at a Chicago church for an event sponsored by ShePreaches, a group that creates opportunities for younger African American clergywomen. The organization developed an online toolkit to encourage services on Good Friday featuring young adult black women in pulpits using womanist interpretations of the Bible.
The increased attention comes at a time when womanist theology, which focuses on the intersection of gender, race and class and empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora, is gaining momentum.
In March, womanist scholars of religion gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their first consultation, at the city’s Howard University School of Divinity, in 1988. Last April, a Center for Womanist Leadership opened at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary with Alice Walker, the novelist and poet and one of the founders of the womanist movement, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural gathering.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, said black women, similar to the women who remained at the foot of Jesus’ cross, can speak of resilience despite difficult circumstances facing their communities.
“It is also significant that the collective Black church is recognizing our gifts and allowing them to be exercised in pulpits across the country during the holiest week of the Christian calendar,” said Copeland-Tune, who will be preaching at a predominantly black church in Largo, Md. “Space is finally being made for us to edify God’s people. There are cracks in the stained-glass ceilings.”
The Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, the first woman pastor-elect of the predominantly black Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., said in an emailed statement that African American women can particularly relate to Jesus’ suffering and injustices that led to his crucifixion.
“Many live and work in the reality of what Womanist Scholar Jacquelyn Grant calls the ‘triple oppression’ of race, class and gender,” said Thompson, whose church’s Seven Last Words service will feature “six African American women and one Euro-American woman who is a daughter of our church.”
“The message of life after death remains a critical one in light of the present day racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies we see rampant in today’s society.”
The Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cited more than half a dozen churches featuring seven black women speaking at Seven Last Words services, from “Womanists of the Bay” in Berkeley, Calif., to “Sisters at the Cross” in Alexandria, Va.
The tradition’s inclusion of black women may be a result of concerted efforts to put them in pulpit positions.
More than a decade ago, the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, founded WomanPreach! Inc., which offers a Jarena Lee Preaching Academy to train women of African descent, and expanded it to include women and men.
She said many black women’s sense of calling to preach is now being undergirded by theological training.
“I think more women have gone to seminary and so they have gotten the degrees, not just the call but the training with that call,” said Bridgeman. “And so they’re unmoved by what might have been a historic resistance to their call because they’ve solidified for themselves their call.”
The Association of Theological Schools reports that the number of black women graduates of its affiliated schools almost tripled from 1988 to 1998 — increasing from 151 to 444. The number more than doubled again by 2018, reaching 994.
The Rev. Christine A. Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors,” said she’s seen an uptick over at least a decade in instances of seven black women preaching on Jesus’ seven last sayings, including in her Akron, Ohio, area.
“This is a wonderful movement, but there are still major barriers that remain for women in ministry,” said Smith, a pastor dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who is set to speak at a “He Is Risen” Seven Last Words service with six other black women preachers.
“Churches particularly in the African American community, particularly in the Baptist denominations, African American Baptist denominations, there still remains strong resistance to women becoming senior pastors.”
Hamilton and others say African American women preachers are likely to address issues of justice during their 10 minutes or so in the pulpit during the Seven Last Words services. The New Jersey pastor said she intends to mention human trafficking and the stricter requirements proposed by the Trump administration for some who have qualified previously for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hamilton studied several years ago at Bridgeman’s Jarena Lee Preaching Academy (named for the first African Methodist Episcopal Church female preacher) and said it was “transformational” in helping her learn about womanist preaching. She then recognized that she brings a unique perspective to preaching and not “the same as if a man is standing up to preach.”
Thus, the associate pastor said, she thinks it’s fitting that some churches are highlighting black women in their pulpits on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
“On Good Friday, we’re able to share in a way that says there’s room for you, there’s room for you here in the midst of Jesus’ struggle and Jesus’ suffering,’’ she said, “that you may have a place in salvation and that this is for you. You matter.”
The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding the constitutional validity of a war memorial in Maryland in the shape of a Christian cross. The memorial is known as the Bladensburg Peace Cross and stands on government property. At issue in the case is a 40-foot cross erected as a memorial for those who died in service during World War I. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this summer.
Constitutional law scholar Garrett Eppsnotes that the result from this case “may help resolve disputes over local memorials around the country.” It might also tell us something about the approach of a new conservative Supreme Court.
While the case underscores the ongoing conflict over the place of religion in American public life, as a scholar who studies this area, I believe there is more to understand here. This is not the first such conflict. In a diverse society, these symbols can have meanings that go beyond religion.
The memorial sits on public land, at the center of a busy intersection in Prince George’s County, in Maryland.
In 1919, a local group of citizens including 10 mothers who lost their sons in World War I formed the Prince George’s County Memorial Committee. Together with the Good Roads League of Prince George’s County, they launched an effort to memorialize those who died in service during the war. In 1922, American Legion Post 3 volunteered to join the effort to build the memorial.
The memorial effort set out to dedicate the highway between Bladensburg to Annapolis as the “National Defense Highway.” It also decided that a memorial cross be included at the beginning of the highway. The intent behind the design was to invoke “patriotism and loyalty to the nation” as well as, in the words of treasurer of the Memorial Committee, to serve as a “grave stone” for her son.
Donors who supported this the initiative signed a pledge which stated,
“We, the citizens of Maryland, trusting in God, the Supreme ruler of the universe, pledge faith in our brothers who gave their all in the world war to make the world safe for democracy. Their mortal bodies have turned to dust, but their spirit lives to guide us through life in the way of godliness, justice and liberty. With our motto, ‘One God, One Country and one Flag,’ we contribute to this memorial cross commemorating the memory of those who have not died in vain.”
The memorial was dedicated on July 12, 1925. A plaque on the memorial is inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County who died in the war.
In 2014, three citizens filed a suit in the District Court of Maryland claiming that the display of a massive Christian cross on public property was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In 2017, the case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Virginia. In a ruling, the judges said that the cross “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangles government in religion.”
Mount Soledad Cross case
This wasn’t the first war memorial in the shape of a cross that was legally challenged. For over a quarter century, the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla, California, was subject to litigation.
The Mount Soledad cross is a 43-foot cross which was once on publicly owned land. In 1989, a Vietnam War veteran filed suit against the city of San Diego in U.S. District Court over the presence of a religious symbol on public property. In 1991, the court ruled the cross was “unconstitutional and had to be moved off public land.”
The 1991 ruling led to a series of appeals in the federal court system that spanned decades. To end the protracted and ongoing legal drama, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association agreed to purchase the public land beneath the cross.
Upon passage by the House, Hunter stated, “Across the country and beyond our shores, America’s military and veterans are proudly represented by war memorials that also display symbols of personal faith and religion.”
Though not law, the passage of the bill by the House demonstrates the extent of the conflict around the presence of religious symbols in American war memorials.
Both people of faith and those who are non-religious can feel uncomfortable with memorial crosses. For example, Daniel Headrick, an associate pastor, lawyer and 2018 fellow of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, writes, “To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross.”
In other words, Headrick doesn’t believe a cross can be stripped of its religious meaning.
In a religiously plural democracy, war memorials with religious symbols can have different meanings for different citizens. These different meanings can be a source of conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the 19th-century French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the political effects when religion gets “mixed up with the bitter passions of the world.”
The Bladensburg Peace Cross case like the Mount Soledad Cross and the War Memorial Protection Act are present-day reminders that there is always more than one meaning of religious symbols.
Each church catered to an African American congregation. Each graced a rustic, country setting. Each fronted a small cemetery. And each is now a charred disaster scene, the result of three conflagrations that brought echoes of civil rights-era violence to Opelousas, a city of about 16,000 people in rural St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
Thursday brought news of an arrest.
At a news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white man. He faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building on the state charges, said state Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who added that federal investigators also were looking into whether hate motived the fires.
St. Landry Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that Matthews is the son of a deputy. Guidroz said the father knew nothing of his son’s involvement and broke down over the arrest, which he helped facilitate by getting Matthews away from home.
Harry Richard — pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, the site of the second fire — said he’s relieved about the arrest: “This takes a lot of the pressure off us.”
But the Rev. Freddie Jack, of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association said, “I would like to know whether he was working alone or not. We can’t let our guard down.”
At the news conference, however, Browning was confident that the danger to churches had ended. “This community is safe again,” said Browning, surrounded by local and federal authorities who had worked on the case. “We are extremely unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
Edwards said the fires had stirred concern among people around the nation. “It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Edwards said.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Matthews shows him with the words “black metal” spray painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie’s portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches. Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal with lyrics that often espouse Satanism and Paganism. A smaller subset of black metal bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs. The black metal scene was associated with Christian church burnings in Norway in the 1990s.
In the days leading up to the arrest, pastors and parishioners at the churches acted with dismay — and a kind of restraint.
“It’s like the ’60s again,” said Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — the site of the last fire.
Yet Hines, and others connected to the churches, were careful not to automatically label the fires as racist acts.
“I don’t know why this happened, and we don’t need to jump to conclusions,” said Hines, a member of the church for more than 40 years. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.” Jack and Richard expressed similar sentiments.
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured. Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were still combing the scene at Mount Pleasant and warning onlookers away on Wednesday, a week after the fire.
Investigators had retreated from the ruins of St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas and the site of the first fire on March 26. There and at Greater Union, which burned April 2, evidence of the fires’ intensity was more visible. Exterior walls of brick and wood had collapsed on rows of metal folding chairs at Greater Union. All that was left of what looked to have been an upright piano was the lattice-work of steel strings.
McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in Opelousas, Louisiana, and Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, contributed to this report.
A Christian organization whose mission is to equip women to be peacemakers has been accused of trying to erase comments by a black Christian speaker about white supremacy.
During an onstage interview, Ekemini Uwan, a Nigerian-American public theologian, told an audience at the recent Sparrow Conference for Women in Dallas that their concept of race was incompatible with the Bible.
In response, several women walked out.
Uwan said organizers tried to downplay any sign of her presence at the conference.
While the Sparrow Women social media accounts published photos, excerpts and highlights from several conference speakers, no images or quotes from Uwan’s comments appeared on its feeds. A video of the interview that had been published to YouTube of her remarks was removed for copyright violation.
Uwan told RNS that she had to hire an attorney to force Sparrow Women to send her photos and video of her interview.
On Friday, Sparrow Women apologized for “content shared during the testimonial interview at the 2019 Sparrow Conference,” held March 29-30 at The Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas.
”We publicly apologize to both Ekemini Uwan and the conference participants for not handling such a complex subject with more care and therefore putting everyone involved in such a difficult place,” the statement reads. “That is not the heart or mission of Sparrow Women and we take responsibility for what happened. We want to be peacemakers and see gospel reconciliation and we fell short of our goal here. We will learn from this and are praying for healing and peace for everyone that participated in this year’s conference and those that have been affected by this.”
When asked for more details about why they apologized, leaders at Sparrow declined to elaborate.
“Thank you for reaching out, at this time we are unable to say anything beyond our statement,” Director of Operations Kristen Rabalais said in an email in response to a request for further comment.
Uwan, a co-host of the popular “Truth’s Table” podcast, dismissed the apology as a “PR cleanup job.” Uwan and two other Christian black women who host “Truth’s Table” routinely address white supremacy, racial justice and other related issues.
Uwan said that Sparrow’s founder, Rachel Joy, told her she was a fan of the podcast, so Joy should have known what to expect during her talk.
“If you listen to ‘Truth’s Table,’ my interview was standard ‘Truth’s Table.’ There was nothing there that was like completely new, or mind-boggling,” Uwan said.
Sparrow Women started more than seven years ago as a church homegroup and attracted women who were “African American, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and from different socio-economic backgrounds,” according to the organization’s website.
The organization described the recent conference as “a catalytic event for over 1,500 women” to learn about racial division and social justice.
Uwan, a Westminster Theological Seminary alumna, was interviewed at the conference by Elizabeth Woodson, Sparrow Women’s resources coordinator.
“Race is not a category in the Bible. It did not exist because it is not something that will be redeemed — it was meant to hold and hoard power,” Uwan told Woodson, according to a transcript of the interview provided by conference attendee Carmen J. Caccavale.
“Because we have to understand something — whiteness is wicked,” Uwan said. “It is wicked. It’s rooted in violence, it’s rooted in theft, it’s rooted in plunder, it’s rooted in power, in privilege.”
She told the audience they should give up whiteness and “recover” the ethnic identities “your ancestors deliberately discarded.” Rather than thinking of themselves as white, they should try to rediscover their immigrant cultural ancestry: “Are you Italian, are you Irish, are you Polish, are you Turkish?”
“Celebrate that,” she said.
Uwan, who said she saw about 10 women walk out during the discussion, mentioned the term “whiteness” more than two dozen times throughout the 30-minute talk.
Sarah Humphries, a 30-year-old white woman from Denton, Texas, attended the Sparrow Conference for the first time, specifically to hear from Uwan and another black speaker, Jackie Hill Perry.
In a phone interview, Humphries said audience members near her seemed upset by Uwan’s remarks — especially when she said the word “whiteness.”
“I was really surprised at how angry the people in front of me and the people from my left were during Ekemini’s conversation,” Humphries said.
In an essay at The Witness, freelance writer Deedee Roe said that most conference attendees were white and that they were “angry and uncomfortable” during Uwan’s interview. She said that after Uwan told audience members to “divest from whiteness,” people began to leave.
“That’s when I saw the first group of white woman walk out,” wrote Roe.
Michael O. Emerson, who is a sociologist and provost at North Park University in Chicago, Ill. and author of “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” said that it’s often difficult to discuss “whiteness,” especially in church circles. He said whiteness was “invisible” to white people and that it is often “cloaked in simply being American.”
“Whiteness is talking about a system,” he said. “It’s not just people, but a system of dominance that happened since the U.S. was founded, and even before that.”
Humphries, the 30-year-old white woman who attended the conference, was sitting left of center stage and said she saw “at least five to 10” women walk out during Uwan’s interview.
Humphries admitted that her “old self” might have identified with some of their negative reactions before she learned more about racism.
“We really need the Lord to do a big work, because we are completely missing it on the whole as white people, just in a general sense,” she said. “There is not enough desire on our behalf to pursue this as a group, like as white people. There’s not enough people who are wanting to engage with the sinfulness in our hearts that has led to all of this racial discrimination and violence and harm.”
When asked why he thinks white Christians have been so slow to catch up to Christians of color on confronting race, Emerson suggested that it was intentional.
“They either choose to ignore the damage done by race, or they know about it, but the benefits that come from whiteness are simply too great that they’re not willing to make the necessary changes,” he said.
Uwan took to social media to share her concerns. She said she felt as if Sparrow Women was trying to erase her presence at the conference.
“I’m just telling the truth, which in and of itself is controversial,” she said.
A previously unknown portrait, c. 1868, of abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is unveiled at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, on Monday, March 25, 2019. The photograph is believed to be the earliest photo of Tubman in existence. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
For her many trips transporting slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, historians have bestowed the title “Moses of her people” upon escaped slave, abolitionist, nurse and spy Harriet Tubman. But the images we’ve seen of Ms. Tubman in history books of an aging, frail and stern-faced woman, haven’t quite matched up to her legacy.
Now, a newly unveiled photograph of a younger Harriet Tubman gives new insight into the life of the legendary activist. Purchased at auction, the photo, included in an album along with four dozen other images of 19th century activists in the abolitionist movement, is now on display at the National Museum of African American History of Culture in Washington, D.C. NMAAHC and the Library of Congress, two years ago, pooled their resources to purchase the album, which unknown to the collector prior to the auction, featured a carte-de-viste photograph of Harriet Tubman taken in New York in 1868 or 1869.
“What this image does is give us a sense of a forty, forty-one-year-old Harriet Tubman. You can imagine how this woman could have led people through the swamps, this woman could have spied for the union, this woman could have demanded that America live up to its stated ideals. It really gives us a sense of a vibrant and active Harriet Tubman,” NMAAHC founding director Lonnie G. Bunch, III said Monday at the photo’s unveiling at the museum.
The photo showing Ms. Tubman seated, wearing a dress with a ruffled sleeve, her hair styled in a middle part, is typical post-Civil War portrait photography. “This photograph makes her human,” Bunch says. “She’s not the superstar. She’s not Moses. She’s not the great general. She’s a woman who did extraordinary things.”
Emily Howland, a feminist, abolitionist and schoolteacher who taught at Camp Todd, the Freedman’s School in Arlington, VA, was the original owner of the album. In addition to Ms. Tubman, the album contains circa 1860’s photographs of lesser-known, along with well-known activists, including Sen. Charles Sumner, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and the only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to Congress.
“The pictures in this album show us the faces of activists and abolitionists, lesser-known figures, who now have their stories told,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, announcing that the photographs are now part of the public domain and available to view online, download and include in educational materials.
At least ten of the photos in the album were of teachers, some of whom were part of efforts to educate African Americans. “Emily Howland was a teacher and there are other teachers in this album—that shows you the importance of education. Teachers were change-makers as well,” Hayden said.
History book images of Ms. Tubman have thus far depicted her as a somewhat silent, solitary figure returning alone more than a dozen times to the South with few clues of her life beyond interactions with her co-conductors along the Underground Railroad. The photo gives new insight into her life as a free woman and her circle of influence.
“For me what I take away from it is the dress—there’s a stylishness to it,” Bunch said. “There’s a sense that Harriet Tubman is not this enslaved woman, beaten down but really somebody who said, ‘I deserve to be treated like a middle-class American woman and this image is one of my ways to demonstrate that.’”
Ms. Tubman’s is the final picture in the leather bound album of carte-de-viste photographs. Also known as CDV’s, these relatively inexpensive two-inch by four-inch photo cards became a popular option to take and share portraits. The positioning of Ms. Tubman’s photo in the album gives insight into how she was regarded among her peers, says Rhea Combs, NMAAHC curator of film and photography.
“When you think about the ecosystem of the people in this album, you can liken it to social media and who we have in our friendship circle.” [Howland] was able to demonstrate who her circle of friends were, and more importantly, the way that she’s placed Harriet Tubman at the end of that album, serves as a punctuation, as a period, as a real symbol of what I think Emily Howland’s life embodied,” says Combs. “It embodied something that was around freedom, social justice and equality for all. And no one better represents that and reflects that than Harriet Tubman.”