Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 22: How Harriet Tubman became a legend.
In 1849, a young woman hurried along a path cutting through a marsh in Poplar Neck, Md., near the town of Preston. She was a slave, barely 5 feet tall. She was scarred from several beatings. She alternated between walking and running, like thousands of other slaves had before her, desperately hoping to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to the get to the North, to freedom in Philadelphia. With a great deal of luck and skill, she made it. And what did she do once she was free? Unlike virtually any other person before her or after, this fugitive slave turned around and walked back into slavery, counterintuitively, in order to free other slaves. And for this, she would become a legend.
Her name at birth was Araminta Ross. While the radical abolitionist John Brown called her "General" and claimed that her strength was "Most of a Man," she was known far and wide as "the Moses of her people." We know her today as Harriet Tubman. How a 27-year-old fugitive slave became what one of her biographers, Milton C. Sernett, calls "the all-comprehending hero of all time" is one of the most fascinating sagas in all of African-American history.
It is a curious coincidence that Tubman died 100 years ago on Sunday, just a month after Rosa Parks was born. And just as curious to me is the fact that these two tough-minded, independent, courageous and deeply intelligent warriors for freedom have been "maternalized," as the historians Catherine Clinton (Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom ) and Jeanne Theoharis (The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks) put it in separate biographies of these two exceptionally strong and noble heroines, both of whose images now grace U.S. postal stamps.
But in Tubman's case, the mythology goes well beyond maternalization.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells about a friend of his who tested elementary school children about black history at a school outside of Atlanta: "Her kids," Abdul-Jabbar writes in Black Profiles of Courage, "know so little about black history that they answer 'Harriet Tubman' for everything." As Sernett shows in his fascinating book Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, despite the fact that she died in poverty, every successive generation of African Americans over the past century has, uncannily, found in Tubman an image or set of images for itself, in a manner and to an extent not matched perhaps by any other single heroine in the black tradition. Her substance has cast many shadows, to paraphrase Sojourner Truth (with whom she is often confused). And for our generation, she is both a mirror and a lamp. How did this come about?
Separating fact from fiction and history from myth, in the life and times of Mrs. Tubman — precisely because of her sheer courage and unprecedented audacity in the face of the brutal slave regime — does nothing to diminish her stature as one of the truly great heroines of African-American history. Fortunately, a few dogged historians have uncovered the facts, including the biographers Clinton, Sernett and Jean M. Humez, but especially Kate Larson, whose masterful biography was published in 2004.
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.
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."
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."
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.