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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Taylor wrote that Tubman “stands without a parallel in history — solitary, majestic, sunkissed,” while Booker T. Washington wrote that she was a “brave champion of human liberty who sounded the death-knell of American slavery,” and was “a character of whom any race might be proud.” (Like Washington, Frederick Douglass had paid tribute to Tubman in a letter, noting that “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”)

Nevertheless, Taylor continued, “the hand of affliction has rested heavily upon her for more than a year,” and she had become “dependent almost entirely on what may be handed her by occasional callers and the scant earnings of her brother, several years her senior.” Tubman, he concluded, was “bowed down with infirmity,” her gait “unsteady, her eye is dim; the sun of her life ere long must set.” The appeal yielded a total of $77. As a newspaper article, dated June 3, 1911, related, “Harriet Tubman, the aged negress, known as the ‘Moses of her people,’ was last Thursday taken to the Harriet Tubman Home, penniless, to end her days.” She spent the last two years of her life in the home, and died in 1913.

Her Legend Takes Shape

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.”