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A Short History of Harriet Tubman in American Pop Culture

Apr 27, 2016

Harriet Tubman will appear on the $20 bill, Treasury officials announced yesterday. That means she’ll appear over diner counters and in wallets alongside America’s white founding fathers. This marks the first time Tubman will get commemoration of this particular sort, but not the first time her image has driven and inspired Americans.

Below, we’ve got a quick history of Harriet Tubman in American art and pop culture. The examples come from a fascinatingpaper by women’s studies professor Janell Hobson, published in 2014 in the journalMeridians: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism. Hobson’s examples highlight not just Tubman’s remarkable staying power throughout American history, but also how long past due Tubman is for a national tribute.

Tubman the Armed Revolutionary

One of the early iconic images of Tubman was, in fact, published during her lifetime, in Sarah H. Bradford’s 1869 book, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. The drawing depicts Tubman standing with a rifle, the firearm meant to underscore her service as a spy, scout, and nurse during the Civil War.

Published in 1869, the drawing was the start of a long tradition of Tubman-themed art, much of it showing her as a militant hero—an image that Tubman herself pushed in hopes of receiving a veteran’s pension (it wasn’t until 1899, 34 years after the end of the Civil War, that the government granted her request). Meanwhile, allies sold copies of Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubmanto help support her.

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