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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In a case of what goes around comes around, writers suddenly interested in Tubman turned to that seemingly reliable source, Sarah Bradford, and perpetuated the myths that she had invented. As Sernett says, "In many respects, the Tubman revitalization of the second half of the twentieth century was merely a reinvigoration of the Tubman myth crafted by her admirers [especially Bradford] and fueled by highly fictionalized versions of her life."

The Truth Is Uncovered

What are the facts buried under some of these myths? Even some of the most respected historians stubbornly cling to Bradford's "300 rescued souls in 19 trips," but the facts do not support that claim, or even come close. Kate Larson has finally set the record straight: "We now have documentation from Tubman herself," Larson writes. "She repeatedly told audiences in 1858 and 1859 that she had rescued about 50-60 people in 8-9 trips. This was before her last rescue mission, conducted in late 1860, when she brought away seven more people." In sum, Larson concludes, "the historical record reveals that she directly led nearly 70 friends and family members out of the Eastern Shore of Maryland to freedom in about 13 trips between 1850 and 1860. She also gave detailed instructions to about 70 more freedom seekers who independently and successfully escaped from the region during the same period. It was Sarah Bradford who made up the mythical numbers."

And speaking of mythical numbers, the prize in this category undoubtedly goes to none other than Orson Welles, who in the narration to Cicely Tyson's television film A Woman Called Moses "asserts that Harriet assisted more than three thousand (yes, three thousand) individuals to escape slavery," according to Sernett, who also reports that "one contemporary source [says that] slaves originally sung 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' as a literal plea for Harriet Tubman to swing into the Deep South and lead them to freedom." Never happened!

Additionally, Larson continues, "There was never a $40,000 reward for Tubman's capture. Sallie Holley, a former abolitionist, made up that figure in 1867, when she was trying to dramatize Tubman's story to help raise money. The only reward for Tubman is the $100 reward notice from the September 17, 1849, Cambridge, Maryland, newspaper," when she and her two brothers first ran away.  

The historian David Blight noted in his book Race and Reunion that "Tubman had long been a malleable icon of America's antislavery past," but none of her contemporaries, I am certain, could have imagined the degree of her canonization today, the curious way in which we have been able to use the myth of Harriet Tubman to reflect our own aspirations, desires and ideological agendas across such a wide and varying set of perspectives.

Noting that "Tubman's reputation is today higher than it's ever been," and that "many and varied constituencies claim her," Sernett lists among these advocates for the rights of African Americans, feminists, advocates for the elderly, the disabled, children, the poor, victims of domestic violence "and others with special interest in the welfare of those who feel excluded from the circles of power and influence." Harriet Tubman "has become, in short, an all-comprehending symbol. The symbolic Tubman is a conflation of myth and history in our national memory."

We have recreated Harriet Tubman in our own images, as something of a palimpsest, with our own narratives and projections inscribed in layers after layers on the text of her life. Dozens of streets and schools have been named in her honor. As James McGowan and William Kashatus note in their biography Harriet Tubman, a survey at the end of the 20th century named Tubman as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War. She continues to be commemorated together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and Sojourner Truth in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church each July 20.

Of our many heroines and heroes of the black past, few deserve this curious form of canonization more than does Harriet Tubman, the counterintuitive slave who was perhaps the first African American to demonstrate that the Underground Railroad ran in two directions, not merely from South to North.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

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.