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.