Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.
The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.
The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.
Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.
It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.
Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.
To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.
“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.
I know the feeling.
After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.
And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.
So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.
So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.
But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.
That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.
Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.
So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.
We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.
The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.
It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.
So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.