Guest column: The story of a late, lesser-known picture of Harriet Tubman

November 20, 2016 GMT

A little-known picture of Harriet Tubman taken during the festivities accompanying the dedication of the John Brown Hall (Infirmary, aka the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent) on June 23, 1908, appeared in The Auburn Daily Advertiser the next day. Thirty-one years ago, this article was transcribed with the following note:

“This (original copy of the newspaper) article was stored in the Harriet Tubman Historical Society’s files since 1983, and was retyped as it appeared. Special Thanks to Nona and Margaret, Cayuga County Community College, Auburn, New York.”

Margaret Devereaux is the present director of the Cayuga Community College Library and Nona Moore is a retired clerk at the same place. Unfortunately, there was no picture or photograph included on the website in which the transcribed article appears: harriettubman.com/dedication.html.

The John Brown infirmary (which is now a cellar hole on the property) was built of bricks, possibly made on Tubman’s own property. Her husband Charles Davis (1840-1888; married Tubman in 1869) was a bricklayer (mason) and so were some of her brothers living in Auburn. Earlier, her father, Ben Ross, (died about 1871) ran a brick making concern on her then-seven-acre property on South Street in Fleming, the clay soil in the area, lacking rocks, being of good quality for brick making. After their wood frame home burned in 1880, Davis helped rebuild it, this time of brick, the same brick house seen on the Tubman property today — this is where she and her husband lived. The white frame house and the John Brown infirmary, having six rooms for patients and a small apartment for the matron, were both used for sick and indigent African-Americans.

The mention of a picture never seen by the present writer piqued her interest and she immediately wrote to the Margaret Devereaux, director of the CCC Library, to Laurel Ullyette, president of the Harriet Tubman Boosters and to Christine Carter, then director of education of the Harriet Tubman Home, with the question of where and what the “Harriet Tubman Historical Society” is today and where might this picture be found. There appears not to be a Harriet Tubman Historical Society; rather, this is a reference to holdings in the Harriet Tubman Home. The original of the picture has not yet been located, but former Finger Lakes Library System Interlibrary Loan and Reference Coordinator Linda Beins was able to locate a copy of the above issue of The Auburn Daily Advertiser, and was also able to have a special image of Tubman’s newspaper picture created.

Below the newspaper picture, Tubman is identified as being 98 years old. Actually, she was born about March 15, 1822, making her 86 years of age, as evidenced by a notation in her master’s account book of a payment of $2 to a midwife to assist Tubman’s mother, “Rit” (Harriet) Ross, discovered by Kate Clifford Larson (“Bound for the Promised Land,” 2004, page 16).

Here, Tubman is dressed for a dance and reception held at the Order of the Sons of St. George’s Hall, over 8 Genesee St., organized in 1886. The event began with a few remarks of the Tubman dedication committee and invited dignitaries at 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, followed by compositions performed by the Ithaca Colored Band and talented singers.

Devereaux and Moore mention that, in this picture of Harriet Tubman, she is attired in “a cape and her favorite small brim hat” worn for the celebratory “dance and reception” that went on into the early hours of the morning on June 24. The striped skirt or dress reminds this writer of the 1886 woodcut of Tubman, found as a frontispiece in the first book-length “biography” of Tubman by her colleague Sarah Hopkins Bradford (“Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman”), there visible below a Union military coat. In the 1908 newspaper picture, again a striped skirt or dress is visible, here below a cape (probably wool) she is holding closed with her left hand, as this June evening must have been a bit chilly (minus 10 to 47 Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service). There do not appear to have been arm holes in the cape (not that these would have made the cape warmer). Also seen is the collar of the cape and a scarf or part of the cape with a hood, perhaps made of the same or a similar fabric. “Her favorite small brim hat” is new to this writer. Her hair appears to be black, without noticeable gray or white. Needless to say, in all written descriptions of the events of the day and evening, and as exemplified by this picture, Tubman appears to have been in good health, some five years before her death on March 10, 1913. In the next few years she would be in out of her infirmary (also made of brick, set back from South Street) or in overflow in the Tubman home (the white frame house seen today).

Many praised Tubman throughout the activities of the day and evening. For 12 years, Tubman worked to raise the community’s awareness of the need for this infirmary and worked tirelessly to raise funds for a “Home for the Aged and Infirm”; this dedicatory day and evening was a high point in her life.

Eleven years before, in June of 1897, Tubman bid on a parcel of land and today’s white frame adjacent north of her brick home without having any of the money to pay for her winning bid of $1,350. A bank was found for a $1,000 mortgage and the Rev. G.C. Carter raised the remainder in just 10 days. Carter was also the prime mover along with Tubman to get the actual infirmary built, along with Mrs. C.A. Smith, spouse of the other minister, the Rev. C.A. Smith. The women managers provided the needed furnishings — just days before the dedication.

It is interesting that there is another highly capable minister Carter at the helm today of what is today known as the Harriet Tubman Home — that is, the Rev. Paul Carter. Christine Carter was, until recent lack of funds, the director of education at the Tubman Home. Now as a volunteer, she continues to give fine tours in concert with her husband for both young people and adults alike. This writer has been present at several of the Tubman Home tours; all are conducted in a highly professional manner and, in my view, are of the highest quality in interest level and enrichment. Today, the very interesting tours begin with a presentation by the Rev. Carter utilizing an ingenious timeline in the visitors’ center, followed by a tour of the house by Christine.

Returning to the newspaper photograph of Harriet Tubman of 1908, although somewhat grainy, the picture still tells a lot about Harriet Tubman: First, that she was well for the dedication and its festivities. Second, information is conveyed about the type of hat she may have typically worn, a short wool cape with a hood (just in case of inclement weather), and the striped skirt (or dress) reminiscent of the skirt in which she is depicted in the frontispiece of the biographical sketch of Tubman by Hopkins, which was published in 1869 in Auburn by W.J. Moses. This writer finds it interesting that a “Moses” was publisher of a book entitled “The Moses of Her People”! The article appears below.

With thanks to Pauline Copes Johnson (great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman), Harriet Tubman Boosters President Laurel Ullyette, Rosemarie Romano and Nona and Margaret at CCC.



Conclusion of Ceremonies of Yesterday in Which Colored Philanthropists Made Such Fine Showing

Local colored society was out in force last evening to attend the dance and reception which brought to an end the dedication day of the Harriet Tubman home. The evening exercises were to have been given in the Maccabee temple, but a misunderstanding in the date ended in a change of place to St. George’s hall, for the evening’s festivities.

The exercises were scheduled for 9 o’clock, but it was after 10 when all the colored belles and their escorts had arrived. It was too late for extended, exercises; and in the absence of Bishop Harris of Binghamton, who was scheduled to speak, extempore remarks were made by several members of the committee. Following a short concert by the Ithaca colored band and several selections by talented vocalists, the floor was cleared for the dancers who enjoyed a program lasting till the morning hours.

The Ithaca band left for Syracuse, and tomorrow will be in Rochester, giving concerts in both cities.

Among the clergymen present at the afternoon exercises was the Rev. E.U. A. Brooks of Utica, who comes here next Sunday to take up the duties of the local pastorate of Zion.

Bishop C.R. Harris, D.D., of Salisbury, N.C., is the president of the board. Several of the pastors of the Western New York conference were present yesterday, and took part in the ceremonies. It was an occasion of great rejoicing on the part of the colored people gathered at the home (The John Brown Hall for Aged and Indigent). “Aunt Harriet” Tubman the founder of the home was the most conspicuous figure at the ceremonies. She was the subject of many eulogies for her self sacrifice in her long years of labor for the establishment of the home. Her remarks were listened to with great interest. Addresses were delivered by Bishop C.R. Harris, Rev. T.A. Austin, E.H.A. Brooks, Dr. A.J.E. Mason, M.H. Ross, C. A. Smith, J.C. Roberts, Mrs. R. Jerome Jeffrys of Rochester, and Rev. J.W. Brown. At the business meeting of the home held after the opening exercises a constitution was adopted and the home is ready for the reception of inmates.

A sketch of the home may be of interest to the readers of the Advertiser. Just 12 years ago this month Harriet Tubman bought the property at a surrogate’s sale at the Court house by Judge Turner. The property was bid off to Harriet Tubman for $1,350. The money was to be paid in a few days and Harriet Tubman came to the conference then being held at Syracuse, and desired the Bishop to send a committee to Auburn. The committee consisted of Rev. W.A. Ely, Rev. J.E. Mason and Rev. G.C. Carter. After looking around for someone to take a mortgage the Cayuga County Savings bank finally agreed to take one of $1,000 if the balance of $350 was provided for. The work of raising the $350 fell to the lot of Rev. G.C. Carter and in ten days he had the entire amount raised, and paid into the bank.

The property was then deeded to “Aunt Harriet” and for seven years Harriet Tubman looked personally after the property. Mr. Eddy the real estate dealer, had the buildings fitted up for rent. It sometimes puzzled “Aunt Harriet” to know where the money was to come from to pay the taxes. At one time she had to surrender her cows to get the money to pay taxes. Four years ago Mrs. Tubman deeded the property to the A.M.E. Zion Church in America to carry out her cherished wishes, the establishment of a home for aged and infirmed colored people of this state. Several times it was thought the home would be open, but it was not until Rev. G. C. Carter came on the ground that any real step was taken to open the home.

Less than two years ago, Rev. Mr. Carter came and found no funds in the treasury. The friends of Aunt Harriet had lost all hope of ever seeing the home open, but Rev. Mr. Carter is not the man to surrender to obstacles without a strong effort. After a hard struggle the work of fitting up the building was commenced nearly a year ago, but owing to the stringency of money matters the work was delayed until a few weeks ago, when the board of lady managers took hold of the work with the result that the home was so auspiciously open yesterday. Much credit is due the board of lady managers under the direction of Mrs. C.A. Smith. Rev. G.C. Carter, is well known in central New York, for the faithful, service he has given to Zion church. He has paid debts on churches at Norwich, Johnstown, Gloversville, Little Falls, Wilkesbarre, Pa., Binghamton and Watertown.

The local colored people are working hard for the establishment of the Harriet Tubman home for colored girls in this city. The home has been in existence for a number of years, but of late interest in the work has lagged. This year will see the completion of the home and it will be under a new order of running. Heretofore it was to be a home for indigent colored people, but now it is planned to have it a school for colored girls, where they may learn the methods of cooking, dressmaking, etc., in which their white sisters have the advantage. The work is progressing rapidly and many contributions are coming from citizens to help defray the expenses of the home.

NOTE: Article appeared in the Auburn Daily Advertiser Wednesday, June 24, 1908, and included a photo of Harriet Tubman dressed in a long flowing gown, wearing a knee-length cape and her favorite small brim hat. The words HARRIET TUBMAN AT 98 was printed under the photo. This article was stored in the Harriet Tubman Historical Society’s files since 1983, and was retyped as it appeared. Special Thanks to Nona and Margaret, Cayuga County Community College, Auburn, New York.