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CIA honors Underground Railroad and Civil War hero Harriet Tubman as a model spy with a new statue

The move is part of an effort by the CIA to bolster diversity at an agency where minorities have long been underrepresented.
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When CIA employees walk into their headquarters in suburban Virginia, they are now greeted by a young Black woman. She’s holding a lantern and armed with a pistol in her belt, looking fearless.

The woman is Harriet Tubman, a hero of the Underground Railroad, portrayed in a striking bronze statue recently unveiled at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley.

The idea for the statue came from CIA officers who studied Tubman in a leadership class, including her time spying for the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman.UniversalImagesGroup / Getty Images

Seeing her as a skilled covert operator, the officers urged the agency to add a statue of Tubman to the sculptures already on the agency’s campus, officials said. 

“What she did was an example of intelligence work, going behind enemy lines, using safe houses and signals intelligence to get people to freedom,” said Robert Beyer, director of the CIA’s museum.

Tubman operated with ingenuity, stealth, courage and selflessness, Beyer said. “These are all traits we want our officers to embody.”

Installing a statue in Tubman’s honor also reinforces the CIA’s goal of building diversity among its workforce, Beyer and other officials said.

“One of the things that this agency has in place is the idea that our workforce cannot work on worldwide missions without looking like the United States, without looking like the world,” said Janelle Neises, deputy director of the CIA’s museum.

The CIA, for decades an agency dominated by white males with Ivy League degrees, and other U.S. intelligence agencies have struggled to recruit a diverse workforce, especially among the more senior ranks.

Harriet Tubman's statue.
Harriet Tubman's statue.CIA

A recent report by the Office of Director of National Intelligence found the percentage of minorities in the intelligence community’s civilian workforce increased slightly to 27% from 26.5% in fiscal year 2019, with 12.3% identifying as African American. But Black and minority representation significantly drops off through senior ranks of the intelligence services, the report said. Minority representation in the intelligence agencies also lags behind the federal government as a whole, where minorities make up about 36 percent of the workforce.

A CIA-commissioned report in 2015 found the agency had consistently failed to promote minorities to leadership positions and that advances in diversity at the top level of the CIA had stalled over a 10-year period.

But a CIA spokesperson said the agency had made “significant gains” in promoting diversity over the past two years, with the percentage of minorities rising to 30 percent among newly hired officers for fiscal year 2022, compared to 27 percent in the previous year.

Last year, the promotion list for the senior intelligence service, equivalent to the top ranks of the military, showed the most diversity in the CIA’s history, with minorities accounting for 27 percent of the positions, the spokesperson said.

The agency held a ceremony to unveil the new Tubman statute in September, and her great-great-great grandniece, Michele Jones Galvin, attended. The statue is part of a series of events marking the CIA’s 75th anniversary, including a newly refurbished museum open to agency employees. 

“For all of us, this statue will not only remind us of Tubman’s story. It will inspire us to live by her values,” CIA Director William Burns said in a statement to NBC News.

There are three other sculptures at the CIA offices that have been on display for years, all of them of white men.

A bronze statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War spy who was caught and executed by the British, stands across from Tubman. Inside the building’s entrance, there is a statue of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the chief of the World War II spy service that preceded the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Looking out over the lobby is a bust of George H.W. Bush, who served as CIA director in the 1970s before his time as vice president and president.

Historian and author Elizabeth Cobbs said that Tubman was a perfect and “worthy” choice for the spy agency, and that this was not a case of promoting diversity at the expense of history.

“This is very meaningful,” said Cobbs, who wrote a historical novel about Tubman’s role gathering intelligence for the Union Army, "The Tubman Command." 

“She was a kick-ass spy operating in extremely difficult circumstances with extremely high stakes,” said Cobbs, a professor at Texas A&M University.

Although school children are familiar with Tubman’s work helping rescue slaves and bring them to freedom in the North, when she was dubbed “Moses,” her time as a Union Army nurse and spy is often overlooked, Cobbs said.

In June 1863, Tubman played a crucial role in the planning and execution of a daring raid into Confederate territory in South Carolina, leading a team of eight scouts who gathered intelligence on enemy positions on the Combahee river. 

Through her intelligence gathering, she learned that some Confederate gun emplacements had been removed and that defensive positions were lightly manned, according to Cobbs. 

Tubman then took part in the raid, leading Union gunboats to strategic points near the shore where fleeing slaves were waiting.

The operation came off without a hitch and with no Union Army losses. More than 750 slaves were liberated, a pontoon bridge destroyed and troops disembarked to torch valuable Confederate property, including plantations, fields, mills, warehouses and mansions. 

Newspaper accounts in the North hailed the raid and credited an unnamed Black woman as the mastermind of the effort, a “she Moses.” Her role in the operation made her the first American woman to command an armed military raid, and last year, Tubman was accepted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall. 

After the war, Tubman had financial struggles and was denied repeated requests for a Union Army pension, which was awarded to Black soldiers who took part in the same raid. After 30 years, she was granted a pension for her work as a nurse, not as a soldier and an intelligence officer.

The statue at the CIA is a copy of an original sculpture by American artist Brian Hanlon, which is in Auburn, New York, where Tubman settled after the Civil War. 

“We wanted to find a statue that showed her in the vibrancy of youth, showing her in action,” Beyer said. “She is striding forward, holding up a lantern, which is something she might have done on a river bank to signal to the other side that she was there to be picked up to be taken to a safe house on the underground railroad.”

Frederick Douglass, the former slave who rose to fame as an eloquent crusader for the abolition of slavery and equal rights, knew Tubman and wrote to federal authorities endorsing her request for an Army pension.

In a letter to Tubman, Douglass wrote that he had enjoyed public acclaim and plaudits as an orator, while she had risked her life in secret to liberate enslaved African Americans. 

“The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism,” he wrote.