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Where to Celebrate the Life of Harriet Tubman in Washington, DC
One of America’s heroes, Tubman is remembered and celebrated throughout the District with museum exhibits, murals and more.
Not far from Washington, DC, along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, you can follow the trail that Harriet Tubman blazed helping slaves escape to freedom on the Harriet Tubman Byway. The courageous Tubman spent years making secret trips to Maryland along the Underground Railroad and her legacy is cemented in American history throughout the region. Tubman also made her mark on history as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, which means she made several visits to Washington, DC. Here’s where you can commemorate the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman – the abolitionist, freedom fighter and army scout – in DC museums, in front of murals and at attractions.
Currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery’s Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence exhibit is an early depiction of Tubman. Artist John Derby’s 1868 portrait of a wood engraving on paper shows an alert Tubman standing lookout holding a shotgun in front of a collection of tents. Inhabiting the same building as the Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum features the above oil painting – inspired by the aforementioned woodcut portrait – in its south wing on the first floor. Artist William H. Johnson’s work commemorating Tubman is part of the artist’s 1945 series, Fighter for Freedom, which illustrated American heroes who fought for equal rights.
One of the best places to see multiple Tubman artifacts is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A highlight: Tubman's silk lace and linen shawl given to her by Queen Victoria. You can also see Harriet's personal hymnal, as well as a brick, a handkerchief and silverware from her home. And don’t miss one of the most striking photos of the abolitionist, which was discovered in an album owned by Quaker school teacher and abolitionist Emily Howland.
The famed wax museum unveiled Tubman’s likeness in 2012 during a ceremony with Tubman’s family present. Her 76-year-old great-great-niece said, “This is the best I have ever seen. It’s like she’s looking at you. It’s like she’s watching you.” Make sure to take your photo beside Tubman, and don't miss the wax figure of Frederick Douglass, another American hero who was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A regular pastime for visitors to the Library of Congress is getting your library card, after which point you can access the collection of the largest library in the world. On display through September 2020 is the exhibit Shall Not Be Denied, which covers the fight for the women's vote and includes an image of Tubman later in life as she took on the cause of women's suffrage. You can always learn about Tubman any time through the Library’s digital archives.
Recently reopened in L’Enfant Plaza, the International Spy Museum tells the unexpected story of Tubman as a Civil War spy in Who Would Have Guessed?, a permanent exhibit about unexpected spies. Women of color were seldom suspected of carrying secretive information during the war, which Civil War spies like Tubman used to their advantage. When you're there, you can also learn more about how Tubman helped a Union Army raid and rescued 750 enslaved individuals.
Local artists, like Aniekan Udofia, add contemplative and colorful murals throughout the city. One of the most popular is the mural on the side of historic Ben’s Chili Bowl, painted by Udofia himself. Tubman overlooks a panoply of African American icons on the side of the restaurant, which is also a landmark for its role during the Civil Rights Movement. In the NoMa neighborhood, DC-based artist Naturel created an iconic artwork of a $20 bill featuring Tubman in support of a movement to feature women on U.S. currency.