How Did Harriet Tubman Become a Legend?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The myths about her reflect as much about us as they do about her.

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The mythmaking about Tubman's exploits began during her lifetime, initiated by her first biographer, Sarah Bradford. In her book, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, Bradford wrote that Tubman had rescued 300 people and made 19 trips back to the South, a claim to which I shall return in a minute.  

Jean M. Humez notes perceptively in Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories that writers have "used [Tubman] in different ways, depending on what their political objectives were and what the racial climate was like at the time." And we can see this clearly in the last years of her life. Her "maternalization," for instance, was complete by 1896, when at that meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, she was hailed as "Mother Harriet Tubman," although the souvenir poster for the event used the same image of her holding her rifle (!) that Bradford had used as the frontispiece of her book, certainly a far cry from "the politics of respectability" embraced by the members of the Federation, in the apt phrase that the scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has coined for the racial feminism at the turn of the century.

Booker T. Washington and his nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois, didn't agree on much, but both did their part to enhance Tubman's legend over the next few years. In 1907,  Du Bois gave Bradford's exaggerated figure legs when he boosted the number of people she'd rescued dramatically: " 'Moses,' as Mrs. Tubman was called by her own people, was a most remarkable black woman, unlettered and very negrine [whatever in the world that was supposed to mean!] but with a great degree of intelligence and perceptive insight, amazing courage and a simple steadfastness of devotion which lifts her career into the ranks of heroism. Herself a fugitive slave, she devoted her life after her own freedom was won, to the work of aiding others to escape. First and last Harriet brought out several thousand slaves." Du Bois is also a source of a claim that the reward on Tubman's head was $10,000, which he mentioned in 1920.

Yet the foggy lens through which Du Bois viewed Tubman, despite his praise, was clear enough when he referred to her "negrine" appearance (and to the fact that he says that she was "perhaps mentally unbalanced" from an injury sustained in slavery). Du Bois remarked upon her appearance again in 1920, in his essay "The Damnation of Women," from Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil, noting that while there was much to praise in the achievements of both Tubman and Sojourner Truth, the two happened to be examples of "strong, primitive types of Negro womanhood in America," while there was "a finer type of black woman wherein trembles all of that delicate sense of beauty and striving for self-realization."

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About a year after Tubman died, Booker T. Washington -- who never memorialized an African-American leader whose agenda he could not appropriate -- cited Tubman as a classic example of both "the law-abiding Negro" (an odd thing to say about someone who systematically broke the law by stealing dozens and dozens of slaves!) and of his own philosophy, saying that while Tubman had been "humble and comparatively ignorant," she had "brought the two races together and made it possible for the white race to know the black race, to place a different estimate on it."

And this was important because, as he said at in an address at the unveiling of a memorial to Tubman in Auburn, N.Y., "In too many sections of our country the white man knows the criminal Negro, but he knows little about the law-abiding Negro; he knows much of the worst types of our race, he does not know enough of the best types of our race."

Tubman's image lay dormant until the Great Depression and World War II, when three African Americans -- Aaron Douglass, Jacob Lawrence and Mary McLeod Bethune, each of whom Du Bois would also have found "negrine," perhaps -- lionized her in different ways. First, the artist Aaron Douglass resurrected her nobly in his "powerfully evocative mural" entitled "Spirits Rising," painted in 1930-1931. But it was the young artist Jacob Lawrence's famous 31-panel mural, "The Life of Harriet Tubman," completed in 1940, that curiously enough would do the most to enshrine Tubman's image in art and lore for the remainder of the century.  

Lawrence's stunningly magnificent narrative series was both a masterpiece of modern art as well as a "breakthrough event in efforts to canonize Tubman in American culture," as Sernett rightly puts it. And the effect was immediate: In a review of the first serious Tubman biography, published by Earl Conrad just three years later in 1943, the popular journalist Walter Winchell wrote that Tubman was "history's greatest Negro woman." But even more astonishing, Winchell said that Tubman was also "one of America's two or three foremost women" regardless of race, according to Sernett.

Within a year, Tubman's stature would reach an unprecedented dimension: At the height of World War II, her name would be affixed to a battleship. Incredibly, Mary McCleod Bethune and her National Council of Negro Women achieved the impossible by waging a successful effort to have one of the Liberty Ships commissioned by the U.S. Maritime Commission named in honor of Tubman. The S.S. Harriet Tubman, a battleship, was christened and launched on June 3, 1944, complete with blessings sent by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who could not attend herself. As Sernett tells us, Jeanetta Welch Brown put it thusly that day, "It has been a long time since the name of Harriet Tubman, one of America's immortals, has been used widely in this land. But she is back with us." Bethune's organization used the launching of the ship "to inaugurate a national war-bond drive to raise two million dollars, the approximate cost of the ship," according to Sernett. With the battleship, Tubman's myth was sailing as well.

100th Anniversary of Harriet Tubman's Death: Other Female Abolitionists

A hundred years after the American hero's death, we highlight other women who fought slavery.