A century after Harriet Tubman died, scholars try to separate fact from fiction
By Krissah Thompson,
After her death exactly a century ago, Harriet Tubman was relegated to the ranks of children’s literature — more legend than woman, remembered as a Moses who ushered her people to freedom.
Tubman’s bravery during the Civil War was overlooked, while her exploits in the network of forests, private homes and other hiding places that made up the Underground Railroad have often been exaggerated by those wishing to tell a story of courage amid the savagery of slavery.
Today, though, American scholars are developing a deeper understanding of this onetime slave and Maryland native.
“Much like Lincoln, she’s ready for a new rendition,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of a 2003Tubman biography. “She should be remembered in all of her full dimensions, as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife who got replaced and a woman who [later] married a man who was 20 years younger than she was.” By rediscovering the woman behind the legend, historians aim to offer a better understanding not only of slavery, but also of the power of an individual to make a difference.
Tubman’s birth date on Maryland’s Eastern Shore cannot be definitively established. She lived to be about 90, and her death, on March 10, 1913, has long been held sacred by her admirers. On Saturday, Maryland broke ground on a state park named after her; Congress is considering similar recognition with a national park, which would make Tubman the first African American woman to be so honored.
After decades of prodding, Maryland state officials have christened the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad ByWay, a road leading from the Eastern Shore to Delaware. Off to the side of the road, in a neck of Dorchester County surrounded by farmland, sits the Bucktown Village Store — a small wooden structure with a pitched roof and creaky porch — and one of the few remaining 19th-century buildings that Tubman is thought to have set foot in.
This year, the Tubman celebrations extend beyond officialdom. On Sunday afternoon, thousands of black women have pledged to walk 100 minutes in her honor in events across the country called “We Are Harriet: A Moving Tribute.” And a banquet Saturday night in Cambridge organized by a group of activists was the “social event of the century,” said Donald Pinder, president of the small but dedicated group that runs the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Dorchester.
The late emergence of Tubman as a nationally honored figure speaks to the roles that race, sex and class have long played in American life, say scholars and advocates. Unlike celebrations of civil rights figures, tales of slavery remain less palatable to modern Americans.
“I cannot answer the mystery of why now. I can only say that her ability to capture the imagination begins with the fact that she demonstrated that one person can make such a difference,” said Catherine Clinton, a Tubman biographer and professor of history who called Tubman a “woman who defied simple categorization.”
Sometime around 1820, Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to enslaved parents in Dorchester, which was then home to 5,000 slaves. Her mother was owned by the Brodess family, white plantation owners who often hired out their slaves. Her father was the property of a neighboring man and worked in the lumberyards.
Tubman never learned to read or write, and details about her life come largely from her abolitionist friend Sarah Bradford, who wrote books to raise money for Tubman and her cause, often embellishing the stories as she went.
As early as age 5, Tubman was sent out to a “Miss Susan” as a caregiver, and she recalled being whipped most every morning. Later, she worked in the fields, where she drove oxen and plowed land, and in the forests, hauling logs. Brodess sold off two of her sisters, an experience she later described to Bradford as wrenching. And Bradford also writes about a head injury that Tubman suffered at the hands of an overseer that left her suffering from seizures and periodic blackouts. During those times, Tubman said, God would speak to her.
Unlike enslaved men and women in the Deep South, Tubman knew many free blacks. She married John Tubman, a free black man living in Maryland, around 1844. Whether or how long they lived together is unknown.
Five years later, when Tubman heard she might be sold off, she walked away to freedom, passing through woods and marshes, some 90 miles to the Delaware state line, and then on to Philadelphia.
“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person,” Tubman later told Bradford. “Now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Abolitionists claimed there was once a $40,000 bounty on Tubman’s head. But records of wanted ads show that a reward of $50 was offered for her return if she was found in the state of Maryland and $100 outside the state. And Tubman is often depicted as old and stooped, but she was in her late 20s and early 30s while helping others, largely family and friends, escape bondage. Her husband, John, refused to leave with her. He had taken up with another woman.
Tubman told Bradford about having to pull out the revolver she carried to persuade some who followed her north to press on, despite their exhaustion. While pointing it at their heads she would say, “Dead [men] tell no tales; you go on or die!”
True story or exaggeration? Hard to know.
“Serious attention to her life was lacking for a long time,” says Larson, the Tubman biographer, “especially because she could not read or write. When academics are looking for projects, they look for papers.”
The facts of the latter part of her life are sparse. She joined the Union army as a spy, nurse and laundress. She adopted a daughter and married Nelson Davis, a Union soldier, close to 24 years her junior. With the help of her church, Tubman opened a charity home for the elderly in Auburn, N.Y. It was there that she died.
By that time, Bradford’s telling was already the dominant narrative. In 1886, Bradford had published an extended biography claiming that Tubman had “succeeded in piloting” 300 or 400 people to the North in 19 trips to slave states “after her almost superhuman efforts in making her own escape from slavery.”
Larson believes Bradford “made up those numbers because she thought she had to embellish what Tubman did.” Larson’s research found Tubman personally rescued between 70 and 80 people in 13 trips to slave territory, documented through letters from her friends, oral histories and land records.
Go to Cambridge, which remains a sleepy town, and you’ll find the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, where a local art teacher has painted a colorful mural of Tubman, and photographs of her adorn the wall. Docents and volunteers tell stories of the black community’s connection to their heroine.
Her name was invoked here in the 1940s to raise money for an ambulance for use in the black part of town. Later, the black community began celebrating Harriet Tubman Day around Juneteenth on the grounds of Bazzel Church, an old wooden edifice where blacks worshipped during slavery.
With the beginning of construction on the visitors center at the new state park in Dorchester, excitement about Tubman is palpable.
“It all comes together in a way to celebrate the courage of a person who is an inspiration,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who has also been a forceful backer of naming a national park after Tubman.
One place that transports visitors back a century and a half is the Bucktown Village Store, which is owned by Dorchester natives Susan and Jay Meredith, who operate the tourism business Blackwater Paddle and Pedal — renting out bicycles, canoes and the like. The Merediths are the fourth generation of their family to operate the general store, which they call the site of “the first known act of defiance in the life of Harriet Tubman.”
Step onto the wooden porch and through the heavy door and see shelves lined with artifacts: chamber pots, wooden duck decoys, old coffee cans. Beneath the glass are metal slave tags purchased on eBay and heavy shackles.
There is also a rusted metal weight, which Susan Meredith holds in her hand as she tells a story about the woman she calls “Minty.” “She was being leased out to farmers so she was working in the flax field. She said her hair looked like a bushel of flax. Master comes and says, ‘Minty go to the store.’ Like any woman, she said, ‘Ain’t no way I’m going with my hair looking like this.’ She put her Misses shawl on her head and headed to the store.”
It’s hard to believe an enslaved woman would drape her head with a shawl that belonged to her owner, but Meredith energetically continues her story.
Minty is in the store, and an overseer comes in chasing a enslaved boy who has walked off the field. Tubman refuses to help the overseer detain the boy. (On this point historians agree.) The overseer hurls the lead weight, “accidentally” hitting Tubman in the head, Meredith says with conviction, though there is some dispute about whether the incident was an accident.
“If this park revolves around inspiration and family and tradition, you’ll get everyone to come. But if you tell the things we already know about slavery, you’re not going to have many people,” Meredith says. “People aren’t going to come to be sad.”
But there is sadness in Bradford’s telling; she wrote that Tubman’s “master . . . in an ungovernable fit of rage threw a heavy weight at the unoffending child, breaking in her skull, and causing a pressure upon her brain.”
Moving beyond happy children’s stories to look slavery in the face and conjure up the fearlessness Tubman must have possessed is — in fact — the draw, says Morgan Dixon, the co-founder of GirlTrek, a District-based organization that promotes fitness among black women.
The image of Tubman walking away from slavery undergirds GirlTrek’s “We are Harriet” walk on the anniversary of her death. More than 13,000 women, many walking alone, will participate.
The idea was born five years ago when Dixon got in her car and drove to the Eastern Shore looking for signs of Tubman.
Dixon ended up at the Bucktown store. She sat inside, thinking about Tubman getting knocked in the head and later walking through forests. It was there that Dixon began to think of Tubman as a physical being, not a storybook character — a woman who felt fear, pain and unyielding resolve.
“Harriet Tubman was a woman just like us,” Dixon says. “One woman who was radically connected to herself and to God takes it upon herself — with this core value of self reliance — to really walk in the direction of her best life.”
It is this Harriet that Dixon will have in mind as she walks Sunday. It is that Harriet Tubman, redrawn to reflect reality, that historians hope will resonate with people seeking to understand her legacy and the era in which she lived.