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.

Woodcutting of Harriet Tubman from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by S. Bradford

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Her Tragic Twilight

The transformation of Tubman into a myth paradoxically began during the difficult twilight of her career in its final decade and a half, although her first biographer, Sarah Bradford, had begun the process in 1869. While today we celebrate Harriet Tubman as one of the greatest foes of slavery, her final years were not spent in the comfort or even with the full recognition that she deserved. She spent 25 years trying to get the American government to award her a pension for her military service, only to be denied again and again. The government finally awarded her one in 1895, but not for her own service.

According to Larson, Tubman finally was awarded a widow’s pension in 1895 in recognition of the service of her second husband, who was 20 years her junior. But it wasn’t until 1899 that Tubman finally received her own Civil War nurse’s pension, at $12 per month. “She was never paid for her spying and scout work, which upset her greatly,” Larson says. “Her fellow scouts (also black but male) received their pay, but Tubman was denied it even though several Union officers vouched for her work.”

Although she founded the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, she never had enough funds adequately to pay its $1,700 mortgage. In fact, tragically, her final decade was spent in a desperate search for financial support. In an urgent attempt to come to her aid in 1901, Robert W. Taylor, the financial secretary of the Tuskegee Institute, published an appeal for donations titled Harriet Tubman: The Heroine in Ebony, with an introduction by Booker T. Washington himself.

Ironically, the book was published just five years after what was perhaps Tubman’s most triumphant public appearance, as a delegate to the famous organizational meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women held in late July 1896, at Rev. Walter H. Brooks’ 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Reading accounts of her reception at the meeting reveals how far Tubman’s star had fallen by 1901.

That gathering was attended by Booker T. Washington’s wife, Margaret James Murray, the journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the journalist Victoria Earle Matthews, and just about every other major female leader of the race. A journalist covering the meeting wrote that “the most striking feature [of the entire meeting] was the reception tendered Mother Harriet Tubman, the venerable colored woman who, it is said, assisted more slaves to run away from the South when the fugitive slave law was in force than any other slave woman.” When introduced by Victoria Earle Matthews, who referred to the “great service that Mrs. Tubman had rendered to her race,” she was “greeted with long and continued applause,” according to the article “Uplifting the Race,” published on July 27, 1896, in the Minneapolis Journal.

By 1901, however, Tubman’s luster had faded, and she was deeply in debt. It was then that Robert W. Taylor stepped in to help with his book about her, the sales of which he hoped swould attenuate her destitution.