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A Legend Unshackled

Changing times, biographers' determination bring the true Harriet Tubman out of myth and into the light.

By Gary Dorsey

Sun Staff

January 25, 2004

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Almost every schoolchild knows the fabled Harriet Tubman -- "The Moses of Her People," "Conductor of the Underground Railroad" -- and most adults probably know what every schoolchild knows.

Children's stories, but little more.

Amazingly, until this year, the most recent adult biography of Tubman appeared in 1943, written by a left-wing labor organizer named Earl Conrad. Although he made a serious effort, Conrad never visited Tubman's home in Maryland, struggled to find sympathetic archivists to help him gather material and, the record shows, endured numerous rejections from publishers who referred to his work as "a freak subject," and the mere tale of a "colorful character."

When Conrad's biography, Harriet Tubman, finally appeared under the editorial direction of the pioneering African-American historian Carter G. Woodson, the only previous adult biography of Tubman was the hastily published work of a middle-class white woman, Sarah Bradford, an author of children's books. Bradford's biography appeared in 1868 and was revised in 1886.

So until this year -- 182 years after her birth, 139 years after the end of the Civil War, 91 years after her death -- the world has known Tubman only through the grandly mythologized accounts of two amateur historians and the scores of children's books they inspired.

Suddenly, three new books written by academic historians have appeared. In the next few weeks, books by Kate Larson, Catherine Clinton and Jean Humez will be published, documenting in detail the painful life and times of the Maryland-born slave. No less inspirational and harrowing than the previous accounts, the new books do, however, reveal far more factual information about Tubman's family, her motivations, intellectual life, spirituality and personal conflicts than ever before.

The new research also offers a significant challenge to worn, popular conceptions.

As Clinton writes, Tubman "cannot remain a 'Mammy' figure, a warm, nurturing historical caricature. Like Pocahontas before her, Tubman's life demands more than pop culture projections, and forces us to seek the underlying causes that make her legacy so powerful for us today."

In particular, the new scholarship underscores the shameful history of slave-owning practices on Maryland's Eastern Shore. New evidence, produced in the books, reconfigures the historical landscape of those communities in ways that some Marylanders will find surprising -- perhaps even alarming.

Most of all, the question of why it has taken so long for Tubman's full story to be told is one that the three authors have tried to grapple with. Although it remains a puzzle, they say that an effort to piece it together will likely illuminate a much larger and important issue: America's deeply rooted difficulty in facing up to its past as a slaveholding nation.

Kate Larson had quit her job in the financial industry and was raising children at home in 1993 when she decided to go back to graduate school for a master's degree in history. "I was reading children's biographies of Tubman to my daughter, who was 7," said Larson, who will begin teaching at Simmons College in Boston this fall. "And when I tried to find a more adult biography, I could only find that one by Conrad from 1943 and the ones by Sarah Bradford from the 19th century."

When she started graduate school, Larson thought she would eventually discover why no one had ever applied rigorous scholarship to Tubman's story. Ten years later, she has produced the most thoroughly researched account of that life, winning advance praise from a variety of American historians who are calling her book, Bound For The Promised Land, an extraordinary achievement.

Nonetheless, Larson still can't quite fully answer her original question.

The quick explanation, she said, is that racism and sexism have prevented scholars from writing seriously about Tubman's life. The long answer, of course, is more complex and nuanced.

Perhaps no one knows more about the real challenges of documenting the life of Harriet Tubman and her family on the Eastern Shore than John Creighton, a former public school teacher in Dorchester County who has devoted 30 years to the task.

In the early 1970s, Creighton was living in the county's historical society building and serving as its caretaker. He began to meet the occasional visitor who dropped by with questions about Tubman. Even with access to the society's records, he had trouble answering the most basic queries: When was she born; where did she work; what happened to all of her siblings? In fact, no one really knew.

In the summer of 1972, Creighton decided to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York to review the notes and correspondence of Earl Conrad, the 1940s Tubman biographer. It set him on an adventure that, even today, has no end in sight.

"I spent a week reading Conrad's files, and it was fantastic," said Creighton, now in his 60s. "There were so many things in there that weren't in his book, so I came back home and started tracking a paper trail until I built this big 3-by-5 card database that's turned into something like a library's card catalog."

Bit by bit, plumbing public records, reviewing property transactions, tracing bills of sale, deeds, criminal court cases and depositions, Creighton amassed a rare collection of documents that has become, he says, "like a little historical society here in my garage." The documents detail not only the facts of Tubman's life, but also comprise an astonishing array of facts about Dorchester County and many of the people -- black and white -- who entered her life when she was a child and young adult.

Over the years, Creighton also began to give local tours for the modest Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge and helped people with genealogical questions regarding Tubman's family. It has been surprising, he said, that he never had a scholar from the state's colleges or universities ask for a tour. "It's an oddity why this [Tubman's story] didn't percolate through academic departments," he said. "It would seem like there would have been more scholarship in the state of Maryland."

Not until Larson showed up on the scene, three or four years ago, however, did he start climbing what he now calls a genuine "learning curve."

"My work had gone on for 30 years, but I had never met anyone like Kate Larson before," he said. "Usually people come to me with one or two specific questions. But when she came here, she was focused on literally hundreds of questions. The amount of material she had already digested was extraordinary."

Documenting the lives of slaves presents a particular challenge to historians. For example, tracing people "sold South" from Dorchester to states as far away as Mississippi in the 1850s is difficult because slaves' names changed in the process. Because many slaves were also sold illegally, the usual documentation never existed. In Dorchester County, a fire at the courthouse destroyed some of the pertinent files. Problems of illiteracy -- a plight shared by Tubman -- prevented many slaves from writing letters and diaries, making important primary source material hard to come by. Finally, the network of free blacks and white abolitionists who constituted the Underground Railroad rarely kept records, out of fear of discovery -- both before and after the Civil War.

And there is another significant impediment: Even today, many people in formerly slaveholding regions do not want to discuss the murky past.

"Slavery is a tricky issue, socially, for everyone -- in the white community and in the African-American community," said Creighton. "It is very personal, very specific. I mean, there are black Creightons and white Creightons, black Tubmans and white Tubmans."

Descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners still live in intimate proximity, local historians say, and yet they have never dared broach the subject with one another.

To write the complete biography she was after, Larson found in Dorchester County that she had to map out an entire panoply of relationships from Tubman's past. She had to construct thorough profiles not just of Tubman's immediate family (her desire to rescue her parents and siblings, it turns out, was extraordinarily important to her entire life's work), but also of slave owners and their families, for whom Tubman worked and among whom she suffered debilitating injury.

Because slavery in Dorchester County was not relegated to a few giant plantations, as in some areas of the deep South, slaves were often hired out to a variety of homes and farms, creating multiple relationships between black slaves and white families. Consequently, Larson's in-depth questioning about those relationships made people in the community uncomfortable.

Larson said when she came to the Eastern Shore to do her research, she was "stunned" by the reactions. "The tension was palpable," she said. "People wanted to know why I wanted to know so many things about Dorchester County, and it was very uncomfortable just going into the courthouse and asking for records. I felt like an intruder and I was not welcome."

Although there were some exceptions, she said, she was left with the impression that many people did not want to hear a different story from the standard one that they already knew.

The strain to uncover Tubman's more detailed history in Maryland, she said, not only reflects the nation's difficulty in talking about racial conflicts, but helps explain why Tubman's story has remained relegated to the less troubling portraits created in children's storybooks.

To truly understand Tubman, she said, one has to understand her motivations and values, created in a particular time and place, formed and fashioned not by "nameless, faceless people," but by the intimate relationships of individual families, slaves and slaveholders.

"She didn't just spring out of nothing and nowhere," Larson said. "She didn't become who she was because of white abolitionists in the North, but because of the horrors of slavery and the family she came from. And that's what's been lost all these years.

"I have a friend who says it's all part and parcel of the nation's inability to talk about slavery, so we just talk about it in childlike terms -- and that's why we talk about Tubman in childlike terms. I think he has a point. If we want to treat Harriet Tubman as a real adult person, we have to confront the horrors of slavery. If you want to know this woman's real story, you have to confront why anyone would want to beat her and whip her and do the things they did to her and her family. And I think that's why people have been so satisfied just to have the children's biographies."

What Larson and fellow Tubman biographers Clinton and Humez have learned may be surprising to readers of the children's literature.

* Tubman's main motivation was not purely altruistic, but profoundly family-oriented. She made the numerous returns to Maryland on the Underground Railroad not to deliver anonymous slaves to freedom. She kept returning for her family -- and when something foiled her plan to get a sister or brother, she took whomever she could on the journey North.

* Tubman made 13 trips to the Eastern Shore over 11 years to liberate her family, and personally brought away about 70 former slaves. Her original biographer, Sarah Bradford, Larson claims, exaggerated those numbers (19 trips, 300 rescues) to dramatize the story. Still, those are the numbers most frequently cited even today.

* Although white Quakers and abolitionists were important to her success, the most vital part of Tubman's underground network was composed of free and enslaved African-Americans.

* Despite an inability to read or write, Tubman managed to leave behind a largely self-created story of her life through dramatic lectures, interviews with journalists and various public events, beginning in the 1850s and continuing to her death in 1913. She was, by any account, a celebrity, though a poverty-stricken one.

* Her first biography by Bradford, in 1868, was written to raise money to help support Tubman and her family, and thus presented her as a powerful Joan of Arc-type character, according to Humez, in her new study, Harriet Tubman: The Life and Life Stories.

A revised biography by Bradford, published in 1886, expunged all references to Tubman's racial politics and portrayed Tubman as a saintly, self-sacrificing person, making the story more palatable to racist audiences of the post-Reconstruction period.

Conrad's biography, in the 1940s, played more on Tubman's Civil War experiences (she was the first American woman to lead an armed raid into enemy territory), downplayed her spiritual leanings and used Tubman to create a heroine for the working-class struggles of his time. (Tubman's biographers, concluded Humez, a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, have always found that she "could be used in a number of different ways, depending on what their political objectives were and what the racial climate was like at the time.")

* Finally, the complete story is not told -- even yet. Documents related to Tubman's life are still turning up. At a recent book signing, Larson met a man who had just come across an uncataloged collection of Civil War-era letters about Tubman and photographs of Tubman with Union troops. Last year, a man in Dorchester County sorting through a dumpster discovered what may be the only existing copy of a local advertisement calling for Tubman's capture when she first escaped in October 1849.

After all, there is still no Harriet Tubman collection, archive or repository where serious historians can turn to fathom the mystery of one of the most famous women in American history.

Local and national historians say they expect research about Harriet Tubman to heat up quickly now. The main reason is not simply the sudden wealth of scholarship. It has to do with tourism.

The National Park Service is now making a study of 13 Underground Railroad sites, including two in Dorchester County, to consider creating a National Heritage Corridor dedicated to Tubman. Grants related to the project, to archaeological digs, historical renovations and to further study are being made available. And the potential for tourism in Eastern Shore counties like Dorchester and Caroline has people turned on, as never before, to Tubman research.

"In the African-American community here, she has always been such an important person," said Dorchester's local expert, Creighton. "But when the National Park Service zeroed in, the tourism potential for this became important in the state of Maryland."

So important, in fact, that competition is now under way in Caroline County to prove that the majority of Tubman's adult work in the Underground Railroad was not done in Dorchester at all, but in neighboring Caroline.

According to J.O.K. Walsh, president of the Caroline County Historical Society, Tubman's best-known rescues took place in Poplar Neck, southwest of Preston. Her father's home, in fact, was in Caroline County, and the historical society recently won a $10,000 grant to hire a historian to find the site and document the evidence.

"Everybody thought Harriet's actions were centered in Dorchester," Walsh said. "And we found out that a major portion of her activities took place here. The truth of the matter is that county lines didn't mean that much to Harriet and her operations, but these days, it's more important to us."

There is also something else new and unusual stirring from the research, an attitude that even Larson might find refreshing.

Jay Meredith, a descendant of a Dorchester County slaveholding family, has renovated an old country store on his family property where Tubman, as an adolescent, is thought to have sustained a blow to the head that possibly caused her to have religious visions and to suffer debilitating seizures for most of her adult life. Unlike his father and grandfather, Meredith has opened the store for tourists and uses it to prompt public conversations about the role of slavery in the county's history. He wants it all out in the open.

"The previous generations here had recollections of this history or were told stories firsthand, and a lot of people were just ashamed of it or wished that if they didn't talk about it, it would just go away," Meredith said.

"But with my generation, seeing people like Kate Larson and other people doing this deep research, we're beginning to open the doors on this stuff and look at the facts and ask questions. I think that's good. They're bringing it out in a way that, finally, we can really discuss it."