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

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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.