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A Legend Unshackled

FamilySlaveryHistoryFiction

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

Children's stories, but little more.

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

When Conrad's biography, Harriet Tubman, finally appeared under theeditorial direction of the pioneering African-American historian Carter G.Woodson, the only previous adult biography of Tubman was the hastily publishedwork of a middle-class white woman, Sarah Bradford, an author of children'sbooks. 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 ofthe Civil War, 91 years after her death -- the world has known Tubman onlythrough the grandly mythologized accounts of two amateur historians and thescores of children's books they inspired.

Suddenly, three new books written by academic historians have appeared. Inthe next few weeks, books by Kate Larson, Catherine Clinton and Jean Humezwill be published, documenting in detail the painful life and times of theMaryland-born slave. No less inspirational and harrowing than the previousaccounts, the new books do, however, reveal far more factual information aboutTubman's family, her motivations, intellectual life, spirituality and personalconflicts than ever before.

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

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

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

Most of all, the question of why it has taken so long for Tubman's fullstory 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 togetherwill likely illuminate a much larger and important issue: America's deeplyrooted difficulty in facing up to its past as a slaveholding nation.

Kate Larson had quit her job in the financial industry and was raisingchildren at home in 1993 when she decided to go back to graduate school for amaster's degree in history. "I was reading children's biographies of Tubman tomy daughter, who was 7," said Larson, who will begin teaching at SimmonsCollege 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 Bradfordfrom the 19th century."

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

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

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

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

In the early 1970s, Creighton was living in the county's historical societybuilding and serving as its caretaker. He began to meet the occasional visitorwho dropped by with questions about Tubman. Even with access to the society'srecords, 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 onereally knew.

In the summer of 1972, Creighton decided to visit the Schomburg Center forResearch in Black Culture in New York to review the notes and correspondenceof 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," saidCreighton, now in his 60s. "There were so many things in there that weren't inhis book, so I came back home and started tracking a paper trail until I builtthis big 3-by-5 card database that's turned into something like a library'scard catalog."

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

Over the years, Creighton also began to give local tours for the modestHarriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge and helped people with genealogicalquestions regarding Tubman's family. It has been surprising, he said, that henever 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 academicdepartments," he said. "It would seem like there would have been morescholarship 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 KateLarson before," he said. "Usually people come to me with one or two specificquestions. But when she came here, she was focused on literally hundreds ofquestions. The amount of material she had already digested was extraordinary."

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

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

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

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

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

Because slavery in Dorchester County was not relegated to a few giantplantations, as in some areas of the deep South, slaves were often hired outto a variety of homes and farms, creating multiple relationships between blackslaves and white families. Consequently, Larson's in-depth questioning aboutthose 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. "Peoplewanted 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 forrecords. I felt like an intruder and I was not welcome."

Although there were some exceptions, she said, she was left with theimpression that many people did not want to hear a different story from thestandard 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 lesstroubling portraits created in children's storybooks.

To truly understand Tubman, she said, one has to understand her motivationsand values, created in a particular time and place, formed and fashioned notby "nameless, faceless people," but by the intimate relationships ofindividual families, slaves and slaveholders.

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

"I have a friend who says it's all part and parcel of the nation'sinability 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 apoint. If we want to treat Harriet Tubman as a real adult person, we have toconfront 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 thethings they did to her and her family. And I think that's why people have beenso satisfied just to have the children's biographies."

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

* Tubman's main motivation was not purely altruistic, but profoundlyfamily-oriented. She made the numerous returns to Maryland on the UndergroundRailroad not to deliver anonymous slaves to freedom. She kept returning forher 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 herfamily, and personally brought away about 70 former slaves. Her originalbiographer, Sarah Bradford, Larson claims, exaggerated those numbers (19trips, 300 rescues) to dramatize the story. Still, those are the numbers mostfrequently 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 andenslaved African-Americans.

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

* Her first biography by Bradford, in 1868, was written to raise money tohelp support Tubman and her family, and thus presented her as a powerful Joanof 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 referencesto Tubman's racial politics and portrayed Tubman as a saintly,self-sacrificing person, making the story more palatable to racist audiencesof the post-Reconstruction period.

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

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

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

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

The National Park Service is now making a study of 13 Underground Railroadsites, including two in Dorchester County, to consider creating a NationalHeritage Corridor dedicated to Tubman. Grants related to the project, toarchaeological digs, historical renovations and to further study are beingmade available. And the potential for tourism in Eastern Shore counties likeDorchester and Caroline has people turned on, as never before, to Tubmanresearch.

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Meredith, a descendant of a Dorchester County slaveholding family, hasrenovated an old country store on his family property where Tubman, as anadolescent, is thought to have sustained a blow to the head that possiblycaused her to have religious visions and to suffer debilitating seizures formost of her adult life. Unlike his father and grandfather, Meredith has openedthe store for tourists and uses it to prompt public conversations about therole 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 weretold stories firsthand, and a lot of people were just ashamed of it or wishedthat 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 peopledoing this deep research, we're beginning to open the doors on this stuff andlook at the facts and ask questions. I think that's good. They're bringing itout in a way that, finally, we can really discuss it."

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