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