“Who would have guessed?” from the International Spy Museum the exhibit features Harriet Tubman. Photograph by Taylor Mickal.
The International Spy Museum will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s birth with a virtual lecture at noon on Wednesday.
If you’re thinking “Wait, the spy museum?” the event could be just for you. Although Tubman’s accomplishments as a liberator and leader of the Underground Railroad are familiar to most Americans, her history as a Union spy and military commander tends to be overlooked.
“Probably most Americans know [Tubman] when they see her; they know she’s the leader of the Underground Railroad, that she’s an abolitionist, that she’s an amazing person,” says Amanda Ohlke, director of adult education at the museum. “But they may not know about this spy story, and that she is literally the first woman to lead a raid for the US military.”
Ohlke will interview Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, whose 2003 book on Tubman was her first unwritten biography for children that had been published since 1943. “There are so many children’s books about Tubman,” says Clifford Larson. Inspired by a book her sophomore brought home while she was earning a master’s degree in women’s history, Clifford Larson became interested in researching Tubman’s life. “But there were no modern adult biographies of her. And my teachers were stunned. They were like, ‘That can’t be true. She’s so famous.’
Since writing her thesis on Tubman and then her biography, Clifford Larson says she hasn’t stopped learning new things about the famous freedom fighter. Last year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled a previously unknown photo of Tubman in his 30s or 40s. “We’re used to seeing these images of this very old woman,” Ohlke said of the find. A small blurb on Tubman had always been included in the spy museum, but when the museum moved to a bigger location in 2019, the freedom fighter got a bigger spot – along with the newly discovered photo – in a new “Who would have guessed? ” exposure of unexpected intelligence agents.
Clifford Larson’s lecture will focus on dispelling myths about Tubman’s story and how the 5-foot-2-inch-tall, once-enslaved woman spied on Confederates and personally led a successful Union raid in Caroline from the south. The same stealth and survival skills that helped her free so many slaves allowed her to discover where the enemy was hiding torpedoes. “I think so many people still think of Tubman as a one-dimensional person: Underground Railroad, freedom fighter. But she was a real woman,” says Clifford Larson. “She was brilliant.”