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