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