Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman
Shirley Firestone
Oil on canvas
32 x 26 in.
DuSable Museum of African American History, gift of Eugene Feldman

Harriet Tubman guided as many as 300 people to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a series of hiding places (or “stations”) manned by abolitionists throughout the free states and Canada. Here, Shirley Firestone paints Tubman as a strong and helpful woman, dressed in the colors of the American flag. She leads a man and a woman through the night, down a dark, twisting path that hints at the long and dangerous trip ahead of escaping slaves. Guided by moonlight, the North Star, and brave individuals like Tubman, these slaves walked at night and hid in safe places to rest during the day. Did you notice the gun Tubman holds? Tubman was tough, and carried it to keep people that ran away from giving up, telling them "you'll be free or die." The North Star, seen at the top left of this painting, was a key guide for slaves seeking a northward route out of the South. 

Though Tubman is most famous for helping people flee slavery, she also served as a Union spy on the South Carolina coast during the Civil War, working with local slaves and the Union army to alert federal troops to Confederate movements.

During the Civil Rights movement, when Shirley Firestone painted this image, African Americans focused on the heroes of the past as well as the present. Her portrait of Tubman focuses on her being not just a Civil War hero, but an American hero, too.

1. Do you think that Harriet Tubman wore bright colors while guiding people to freedom? Why do you think the artist chooses to dress her this way in this painting? 

2. What do you think the owl next to Harriet Tubman represents?

Further reading:
WGBH and PBS Online, “People and Events: Harriet Tubman (c.1820-1913).” Africans in America. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html.

©DuSable Museum of African American History