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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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.

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.”