Author Douglas V. Armstrong discusses “The Archaeology of Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom”

Cover Image for Harriet Tubman's Life in Freedom

The archaeological record that Tubman left behind sheds light on her life and the ways in which she interacted with local and national communities.

Archaeological and historical research at the Harriet Tubman Home, in Auburn and Fleming, New York have uncovered significant details related to Harriet Tubman’s life in Freedom. Among the artifacts recovered from Harriet Tubman’s house were a group of metal buttons with star designs. These buttons were just a few of the tens of thousands of personal items that were part of the daily life of Harriet Tubman, her family, and those who she cared for over more than fifty years of her life in freedom.   

This week news related to a renewed effort to move forward with the release of the Harriet Tubman twenty dollar bill once again brings conversations related to the multi-dimensional importance and symbolism of the inclusion of an image of Harriet, a woman and an African American, on U.S. currency. The Tubman $20 bill also has special meaning related to this book. There is a link between the design of the new twenty and the material record recovered at the Harriet Tubman Home. Symbolic representations of the star buttons recovered from archaeological deposits from soils just outside the north door of Tubman’s house were incorporated into the clothing worn by Tubman in the engraving of Tubman on the twenty dollar bill. The Bureau of Engraving requested images of dozens of artifacts from the site and selected these as they were tangible items recovered from Tubman’s house that could be depicted in the engraving and due to the star symbolism.  The stars depicted have a well-known correlation to Tubman’s following the North Star to freedom, and the buttons were found in a context of the house where Tubman, her family, and those in her care were living in freedom.

A photograph of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman, photograph taken in Auburn, New York (circa 1868-1869) from an album owned by Emily Howland (Sherwood, New York), a long-time Tubman friend. Photograph by Benjamin F. Powelson, 77 Genesee Street, Auburn, New York. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress. Object Number 2017.30.47.

The initial decision to put Tubman on the $20 took place when the archaeological project described in this book was well underway and findings from the site were shedding light on new dimensions of Harriet Tubman’s civic minded pursuit of equality and justice. With the support of congressional legislators, Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. and the AME Zion Church used this new archaeological and historical research on Tubman to work with the National Park Service in an effort that let to recognition of the property as Harriet Tubman National Historic Park, a designation that was achieved in 2017, an effort that is described in the final chapter of the book.

This study integrates a detailed archaeological study with the compilation of an array of primary and secondary source data on Tubman’s life. Tubman’s early life is well known for her efforts to liberate African Americans from slavery. Tubman’s heroic actions conducting African Americans to freedom on the Underground Railroad have been detailed in several books, including Kate Larson’s “Bound for the Promised Land”(2004). In 2020, Tubman’s self-emancipation and her dynamic role as a conductor was vividly portrayed by Cynthia Erivo’s Academy Award nominated performance in the film “Harriet”. However, this study shows that there is even more to Harriet’s story and her on-going contributions to the struggle for freedom, women’s rights, liberty, and social justice. This study remembers Tubman’s commitment to social activism through the life that she lived, in freedom, at her personal home and farm and on behalf of the elderly African Americans that she cared for at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged that she created in Fleming and Auburn, New York.

In the time since Tubman’s death, in 1913, the properties once owned by Harriet Tubman have continued to be held as a spiritual placeholder of her dreams and ideals. The properties constitute a landscape rich in artifacts, buildings, and meaning that derive from her life and her efforts on behalf of others. This study celebrates the process of healing and restoration associated with the reunification of Tubman’s properties and their recognition in 2017 as a key element of the newly created Harriet Tubman National Historic Park. In the pursuit of understanding Tubman, and the site, the study encountered many aspects of Tubman’s life that had been lost. The process of rediscovery embraced the multivalent patina of newly uncovered evidence of her life, including elements preserved in the site and in an array of newly examined documents. Together, these data inform us and provide depth and texture illuminating Harriet Tubman’s life, the people with whom she engaged, and the cultural landscape of sites once warmed by Harriet Tubman’s humanity.

The archaeological record that Tubman left behind sheds light on her life and the ways in which she interacted with local and national communities. It also projects her strong, individually based, spirituality and her relationship with the AME Zion Church. The AME Zion Church backed Tubman’s struggle. First, by working with her to open the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged; and then, by keeping her dream, and her legacy, alive through the retention and preservation of her properties. However, within decades of the end of Tubman’s life the breadth and importance of her legacy was nearly forgotten by the broader American society. As the 20th century progressed, the Home was closed and the structures deteriorated; but, the AME Zion Church managed to hold the properties together as a sacred trust. Fortunately, through perseverance, and a reawakening to the importance of the many social movements with which Tubman was actively engaged, her properties were preserved and the material record ensconced within these properties have been studied: including buildings, yards, ruins, and even a remnant apple orchard that were all important parts of Tubman’s life. In this setting the past and present have become intertwined. Now, more than a century after her death, the property, which is still owned by the AME Zion Church through its Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. not-for-profit unit, has taken on new symbolic meaning as a place of pilgrimage and national recognition, as a National Historic Landmark (NHL), and most recently as a National Historic Park.

Archaeological studies began after I took my students to the property as part of a regional “freedom trail” and “social movements” field trip for Syracuse University students. As we walked across the property and into the small museum my group and I were greeted by a warm welcome from site manager, Rev. Paul Carter. While feeling embraced by the welcome, I was instantly struck by the gap between my expectations for the site, given my understanding of the significance of Harriet Tubman’s contribution to American and world history, and the less than expected scale and scope of presentation of the property. I realize now that what I was experiencing was the product of changes in the landscape: missing buildings, miss-information on structures and their use by Tubman, and a general loss of interpretive connections to information on Tubman’s life. Though the land had been retained by the AME Zion Church and the Harriet Tubman Home Inc, changes to the landscape during the decades intervening between Tubman’s life and the present had resulted in significant losses in interpretive meaning. These changes were directional in that they were related to intervening social conditions and structures of social inequality, that in spite of good intentions of the AME Zion Church, had resulted in limited resources and opportunities, and that over time, and processes of physical decay, key elements of Tubman’s legacy were muted or muffled and continuities that were inherent in the landscape were obscured. What I observed at the Tubman Home that day was in contrast to many historic sites that I have visited, like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, or the nearby home of Tubman supporters William and Francis Seward, where every vista, room, or action, from the past are amplified and illuminated. 

As I toured the small museum my eyes and thoughts focused in on a picture of Harriet Tubman. In the image, Tubman is sitting among a group of African Americans in front of a building, identified as ‘John Brown Hall’.  I had not seen the building in the modern landscape, so I asked Rev. Paul Carter where the building was located. He responded that it had been torn down and was lost in the woods at the back of the property. My thoughts flashed back and forth between a feeling of loss and hope, before focusing positively on hope. I asked him if we could go into the woods to look for it. He responded with a smile, saying “by all means.”

I gathered my students and we all headed into the woods to look for the ruins. Only about fifteen minutes later they began eating their lunches at the site as I went to get Reverend Carter who joined us on the newly rediscovered ruins. We discussed the importance of the site and I agreed, pending the support of the AME Zion Church, to excavate the ruins as soon as I finished another project. I remember thinking to myself as we returned home that day: ‘How could this site, a site associated with such an important woman, be so poorly understood?’; ‘How could key elements of the story of her life be missing from the landscape and all but forgotten?’; and ‘What other ruins lie hidden on the property?’

This study is the product of nearly two decades of work at the Harriet Tubman Home, a project that involved hundreds of Syracuse University students, high school students from the region, and many local volunteers from the Auburn area. We carried out excavations at John Brown Hall, then surveyed the entire property and began excavations in and around Tubman’s brick house, we studied her yard, barn, and numerous other buildings and features on the combined 32 acre property. The book describes the process of rediscovery and uses the material evidence to link together numerous aspects of her life, her spirituality and her continued activism related to women’s rights and the welfare of aging African Americans.

Tubman was a strong woman with deep spiritual beliefs and a willingness to open her home and extend her resources to others. Moreover, she was deeply respected, not only by the African American community in Auburn and across the nation, but also by a broader local and national community of persons engaged in social causes, activism, and civil liberties. The material and spatial record reveals Harriet Tubman’s efforts to provide for those in need, her support of women’s suffrage, and her efforts to create a special place where aging and homeless African Americans could find shelter and freedom from want.

This is not simply a report of archaeological contexts pertaining to Harriet Tubman, but a material demonstration of the qualities of the life she lived in service to others. The tangible artifacts recovered were used in daily life by Tubman, her friends, family, and people who were reliant on her. They remind us that the message is not just to keep on going; but, like Tubman, to keep moving forward with deliberate action and to pursue freedom and dignity on behalf of others. My hope is that in unearthing the archaeological record of her life the new perspectives gained will serve to inspire new generations to action—to solve the social problems of today.

photo of Douglas Armstrong
Photo by Syracuse University

Douglas Armstrong is Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor and Maxwell Professor of Teaching Excellence in the Anthropology Department, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is the author of Creole Transformation from Slavery to Freedom: Historical Archaeology of the East End Community, St. John, Virgin Islands. His upcoming book The Archaeology of Harriet Tubman’s Life in Freedom can be pre-ordered at press.syr.edu.

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