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Feeding a need to know real Harriet Tubman


Despite being one of the most admired women in American history, Harriet Tubman left little evidence of her birth on Maryland's Eastern Shore. That mystery has baffled people in the very communities where she spent two decades in involuntary servitude and subsequent years spiriting away Dorchester County slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Consequently, Tubman is celebrated in folklore, looming as large as Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett, but here at her birthplace, remaining a figure only partially formed, like a ghost on the landscape.

Until now.

Earlier this month, a very soft-spoken, 45-year-old, white New England historian named Kate Larson came to Cambridge, telling dozens of previously unheard stories about Tubman's life and times on the Eastern Shore. For the first time, the folkloric Tubman came to life in three dimensions, appearing in the memory of specific times and places -- in familiar houses, fields, shops, roads, swamps and woods -- around her native land.

"For so long, this story has not been told," said Vernetter Pinder, an African-American elementary school teacher who came to The Place on Race bookstore on a Saturday morning to meet Larson and give her a hug. "People are begging for this kind of information. Kate is just an inspiration."

In a presentation in the City Hall chambers, Larson shared highlights from seven years of research as a Tubman biographer. She left dozens of new primary sources -- old letters, diaries, court testimony, unpublished interviews and courthouse records collected from Canada to South Carolina. She wowed audiences with meticulous accounts of Tubman's life here and sold out copies of her new biography, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine Books, $26.95).

"I know there is much more information out there," she said. "We just have to do more research. I encourage everyone to keep looking."

Building on a legacy

Why Tubman's legacy has not been better preserved in Dorchester County, locals say, may be a matter of selective memory in a community where descendants of former slave-holders still live among descendants of former slaves. But with recent booming interest in African-American history and the Underground Railroad, in particular, the potential for tourism based on Tubman's legacy has people eager to map the American heroine's past.

"We already know there are many, many people who want to come here to see, feel, and, in some way, experience Harriet Tubman's life," said Natalie Chabot, director of Dorchester County Department of Tourism, which co-sponsored Larson's appearance in Cambridge. "It's unfortunate that more wasn't done in the past, but we are now working on a strategic plan to evaluate resources here so we can protect and preserve property and make sure the history's not lost. We still have a great opportunity."

Among those now relying on Larson's work is Barbara Mackey, leader of a National Park Service study that will likely propose the creation of national heritage sites dedicated to Tubman. After Mackey met with Larson a little more than a year ago, the park service hired Larson as a consultant. "She has been very helpful in getting us grounded," Mackey said.

During her appearance in Cambridge, Larson, who will begin teaching at Simmons College in Boston in the fall, separated fact from legend.

* Although Tubman has often been hailed as fearless, Larson believes Tubman actually experienced great fear on her journeys. But by combining that fear with religious faith, she became extraordinarily skilled at planning her escapes with runaway slaves.

* Contrary to legend, Tubman did not have narcolepsy, but most likely suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy caused by a severe head injury sustained during an attack by an overseer of a Dorchester County plantation. That, Larson said, would explain the auras, seizures and intense religiosity Tubman experienced throughout her life.

* John Tubman, her first husband, was not a lout, as he has often been painted. Although he did remarry after Tubman's initial escape, Larson said, he took an enormous risk, as a free black man, in marrying her in the first place. "He gets a pretty bad rap in some of the children's books," she said. "But I believe they were deeply in love. For a free black man to marry a slave woman was a serious decision. It was not an arranged marriage, and it would have been done with great trepidation."

* Previous assumptions that Tubman's mission depended mostly on the support of white abolitionists are probably incorrect. At the time, the maritime culture of the Eastern Shore was heavily influenced by African-American mariners who worked the area. They were most likely her greatest support and influence. "They were the spokes on the wheel of communication throughout the Chesapeake and the Atlantic coast," Larson said. "These men were the connecting tissue. They brought stories of freedom in the North; they knew who the safe people were on the Underground Railroad; and they could carry messages back and forth. Harriet learned from them, and that's how she managed to get people out of here when so many others failed."

* Although Tubman probably knew Frederick Douglass, who lived for some time in the same area where she and her family were enslaved, Larson said, Douglass was ambivalent about promoting Tubman to his audiences. Highly literate and sophisticated, Douglass seemed to prefer calling attention to the accomplishments of others like himself and did not wish to bring attention to an unlettered, uncultured woman like Tubman. Thus, their contact, she said, was minimal.

Rallying for support

While Larson was speaking at City Hall, another group in Cambridge met at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Louis Fields, executive director of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, had come from Baltimore to encourage local people to take advantage of government funding for organizations that promote Tubman's legacy.

For about 20 years, the Harriet Tubman Organization in Cambridge has struggled to support projects related to Tubman's life. The Harriet Tubman Museum on Race Street downtown needs funding; its bus tours, which attract people from around the country, depend on part-time volunteers; historically, it has had difficulty getting local support. Recently, it had trouble simply heating the museum and keeping the roof in repair.

Now with heightened interest in Tubman's history, Fields said, non-African-American groups are getting federal and state grants for Tubman-related projects. Meanwhile, people who have carried Tubman's torch for years are in danger of falling behind.

"We need to move quickly because these other groups are applying for funds and getting certified," Fields said. "Harriet Tubman is a hot topic in our country. Things are moving!"

Joseph Morse, who runs an economic development company in Salisbury, explained that he had grown up in Tuskegee, Ala., and had seen what happened when a white-owned commercial business came to Tuskegee to create a tourism business around the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. He did not want to see the same thing happen on the Eastern Shore with Harriet Tubman's legacy.

"I want to make sure that people who are indigenous to the area are involved in this," he said.

Questions for author

By the end of Kate Larson's second day of appearances, copies of her biography were hard to find. Local book sellers had depleted their stocks; one told Larson she had "outsold Harry Potter" in his store. The effects of her research on Maryland tourism, local race relations and the history of the Eastern Shore remain to be seen. But the stories she brought to town already suggested solutions to mysteries some Maryland families have puzzled over for years.

One morning, a young African-American man sat down and began to ask her questions.

"There has been a rumor in our family for a long time," said Bruce Miller, who had traveled more than two hours to meet the historian. "My grandmother used to say we were related to Harriet Tubman -- now I'm trying to find out for real."

Larson listened carefully to his tale, mulling over bits of information about Miller's connections to the Ross family in Baltimore and Tubman's connections to the Ross family in Dorchester County.

"Yes, there could be a link with Harriet's family," she told him, finally. "In fact, it could be more than a strong coincidence."

A few minutes later, Miller bought the Tubman biography and readied himself to begin a whole new round of genealogical research.

"You know, I don't really care what I find out ultimately," he said, happily. "This is a quest. This part of my journey is just plain fun."

For more about the new scholarship on Harriet Tubman's life, and about Black History Month, go online to The Sun's Web site: baltimore / bhm.

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