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Spy Museum Celebrates Harriet Tubman’s 200th Anniversary

The famous Underground Railroad liberator also spied behind Confederate lines.

The International Spy Museum's "Who'd Have Guessed?" 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 talk at noon Wednesday.

If you’re thinking “Wait—the Spy Museum?” the event might be just for you. Though Tubman’s accomplishments as a liberator and leader on the Underground Railroad are familiar to most Americans, her history as a Union spy and military commander tends to get overlooked.

“Probably most Americans know [Tubman] when they see her; they know she’s this leader of the Underground Railroad, that she’s an abolitionist, that she’s this amazing person,” says Amanda Ohlke, the museum’s director of adult education. “But they may not know this spy story, and that she’s literally the first woman to lead a raid for the US Army.”

Ohlke will interview Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, whose 2003 book about Tubman was her first biography not written for kids that had been published since 1943. “There’s so many children’s books about Tubman,” Clifford Larson says. Inspired by a book her second grader brought home while she was getting a master’s in women’s history, Clifford Larson got interested in researching Tubman’s life. “But there were no modern adult biographies of her. And my professors were stunned. They were like, ‘That can’t be true. She’s so famous.’”

Since writing her dissertation about Tubman and then her biography, Clifford Larson says she has not stopped learning new things about the famous freedom fighter. Just last year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled a previously unknown photo of Tubman in her 30s or 40s. “We’re used to seeing these images of this very elderly woman,” Ohlke said of the discovery. A small blurb about Tubman had always been included in the Spy Museum, but when the museum moved to a larger location in 2019, the freedom fighter got a larger spot—featuring the newly discovered photo—in a new “Who Would Have Guessed?” exhibit of unexpected intelligence agents.

Clifford Larson’s talk will focus on dispelling myths about Tubman’s story and exploring how the 5-foot-tall formerly enslaved woman spied on the Confederates and personally led a successful Union raid in South Carolina. The same stealth and survival skills that helped her to bring so many enslaved people to freedom enabled her to find out where the enemy was hiding torpedoes. “I think that so many people still look at Tubman as a one-dimensional person: underground railroad, freedom fighter. But she was a real woman,” Clifford Larson says. “She was brilliant.”

This article has been edited since its original posting.

Kayla Benjamin
Assistant Editor